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Monday, March 4, 2024
March 4, 2024

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Community meets candidates for new Vancouver schools chief

One of four candidates will replace Steve Webb

By , Columbian staff writer

Educators, students and community members flocked to Zoom to virtually meet and learn more about the four finalists aiming to be Vancouver Public Schools’ next superintendent.

Pending contract negotiations, the next superintendent is scheduled to begin work July 1.

The finalists are: Karen Cheser, superintendent of Fort Thomas (Ky.) Independent Schools; Jeff Snell, superintendent of the Camas School District; Kenneth “Chris” Hurst, superintendent of the Othello School District, and Hector Rico, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion of the Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz, Calif.

During Tuesday night’s public forum, hosted by McLoughlin Middle School Principal Travis Boeh, finalists fielded the same six questions provided by the Vancouver school board. As many as 360 community attendees tuned into the 2-hour, 30-minute webinar.

Questions included equity and diversity issues in schools, challenges facing the next superintendent, and reopening schools during COVID-19.

Finalists will go through interviews with the school board this week.

When addressing her district’s reopening plans amid COVID-19, Cheser said 92 percent of students have done in-person instruction since Aug. 31 with zero spread of COVID-19 inside schools. She said reopening wouldn’t have happened without the work of task groups, utilizing all spaces and adding staffing and portable classrooms. She also said her district was one of the first in Kentucky to vaccinate educators.

“Yes, we have cleaning and universal masking,” Cheser said, “but the 6-foot distancing was the key. We couldn’t be safe unless we had that.”

Snell spoke to his core values of hope and purpose in his personal life that inspires him in his professional background in education. He focused around his tenure as principal at Fort Vancouver High School when asked about how to get others behind change and culture and equity issues facing the district. Snell spent 15 years in VPS as a teacher and administrator.

“That experience was really pivotal in my equity journey and my advocacy for students,” Snell said. “I wanted to be part of change that would ensure every student benefited from those goals we aspire and we say for all students.”

Hurst touched on educational equity several times, including what he believes is a challenge facing the next superintendent. When asked what inspired him to enter education, he said he never had encouragement from educators growing up in the South when reflecting back on his own K-12 education.

“I vowed and committed myself that I would never allow that to happen to anyone in education,” Hurst said. “That’s why I’m in education.”

Rico’s life work has been about diversity, equity and inclusion at local and state levels. When he recently was superintendent of a high-needs 9,000-student California school district that had 75 percent of students as English Language Learners, he advanced equity by developing multitiered systems of support to meet needs of a whole child.

“All students are brilliant,” Rico said, “but you have to make the environment conducive to learning.”

Finalists meet with the school board for interviews this week.