Susan Bell reads “The Remarkable Farkle McBride”

Touchet School District Superintendent Susan Bell reads “The Remarkable Farkle McBride” by John Lithgow to Kathy Warner’s kindergarten class. Bell, who is retiring in June, wears dozens of hats in the tiny school district but treasures direct student contact most of all.

TOUCHET — Susan Bell loves every inch of the Touchet School District, from recently-renovated classrooms flaunting new technology to the leak-prone ag shop in dire need of a new roof.

This affection for all things in this small district is fortunate, as Bell spends hours and hours a day wearing just about every hat needed to help Touchet’s some 200 students succeed.

To read Bell’s schedule is to need a nap. Although winter’s frozen grip has recently sent school superintendents everywhere out to drive roads at 4 a.m., Bell typically begins her day by 6:45 a.m.

First comes communication duty. Even in a town of fewer than 500, it’s not unusual for 50-plus emails and phone messages to come in  to the superintendent’s office overnight. At this time of day, there are also what she calls the “got a minute?” conversations.

And, because Bell functions as principal for Touchet’s elementary, middle and high schools, she also deals with discipline issues before the school day kicks in.

At 7:30 a.m. it’s time for a staff meeting. On this day, Bell meets with her elementary teachers to nail down parent-teacher conference details, talk about outgoing attendance letters and some high-schoolers “flying” out of the parking lot at bus loading time.

The group discusses the booster club’s bingo fundraiser and which computers are not working.

What about lunch recess, teachers wants to know — indoors or outside?

That’s an easy one for Bell. With the temperatures at under 20 degrees and no expectation of warming, today will be another gym recess.

Walking back to her office, the superintendent said she’s been in education for 38 years. Her mother and both grandmothers were teachers and the profession has forever been close to Bell’s heart.

That makes what’s coming on June 30 harder. It’s when Bell, 60, says goodbye to days that can stretch out 14 hours or more. No more weekly meetings with school board and other officials. No more department updates, teacher evaluations, taking in the bank deposits and school water samples for monthly testing.

Bell will walk out of this life and into retirement when this year’s contract ends, and not the only school leader doing so, by any means.

Many jobs on one giant plate

As of Friday, the Washington State School Director’s Association listed 13 open superintendent positions around the state, not including the one at Waitsburg School District with the recent resignation of Superintendent Jon Mishra.

Finding the right person to lead a school district is a challenge anywhere, said Bill Jordan, owner of West Coast Investigations.

The Walla Walla-based company offers investigative and consulting services to school districts, businesses and agencies. Jordan is currently working with  Waitsburg school officials find Mishra’s replacement.

Like Touchet, Waitsburg is a small, rural district, and filling those top spots can take specialized effort. Jordan said.

Like many things in education, it revolves around money. Fewer students equals fewer state dollars, meaning many jobs that would be parceled out to department heads in larger districts land in the superintendent’s lap in small communities.

“Around 1,500 to 2,000 students is when district offices can become more robust. You can start adding directors,” Jordan said, listing special education, librarians, learning specialists, maintenance directors and others as part of a bigger administration package.

Because Washington state decides a district’s funding by the number of full-time students, the math is fairly simple, he said — the more kids, the more money. The more money, the more employees, both classified positions and certified teachers.

It’s common for small districts to share resources like counseling, speech and physical therapies, with those specialists traveling from school to school over the course of a week or more, Jordan said.

In the smallest of districts, however, the superintendent has to be the glue that holds all things together. Successful candidates for such jobs must come in understanding every facet of the district.

Such as special education — in Washington, special education is backed by one of the state’s most powerful lobbies, Jordan said. And superintendents need to know how to navigate strict regulations to get government dollars for reading and math services, how to account for basic education funding and local voter-approved levy money.

“The superintendent has to know how to order a bus, whether the food service is compliant with federal policy and be a fantastic business manager,” Jordan added.

That’s just the regular school day. A superintendent anywhere is expected to attend every concert, robotics competition, sporting event and high school play. And most want to, to build bridges between school and families, according to Jordan.

“You might not have the duties, but it is critical you are there. The community expects you to be invested like that.”

If, as is the case in Touchet, Waitsburg and Athena-Weston, a superintended is also a principal the job gets more complex, he said.

In these situations the principal-superintendent works with the staff to build the master schedule — daily classes, P.E., music and more all have to be fitted into the calendar.

While wearing the “principal” hat, a superintendent works closely with teachers, doing detailed evaluations and finding professional development options.

Included in the job title is managing student discipline and making contact with parents, Jordan said.

“Then becomes, basically, a school counselor.”

In a place like Touchet there is always something to do, he added.

“It just doesn’t stop. A slow day is still full of stuff. In a small district, whether it’s staff, students or community, you have to be accessible — the answer is always ‘yes.’”

Jordan, 72, knows much of this from living it. He’s had a range of career experiences, including leading the Kelso Wash., Prescott and Walla Walla school districts, and being the Washington state deputy superintendent of public instruction.

“As a superintendent you better know every aspect of the organization” Jordan pointed out, “or you’re really in a lot of trouble.”

The most important trait of all? An ability, a drive, really, to be relational with everyone from elected school board members to preschoolers, he added.

Getting a Touchet-sized fit

That’s truer in Touchet than in many other districts, Darren Goble believes.

Goble is serving a third term as Touchet School District’s board chair; he’s been part of the board here for a dozen years, he said.  

A farmer in his day job, Goble meets with Bell once a week in her Americana-themed office.

The decor echoes Touchet’s school colors — red and white with accents of blue.

Goble said he’s a graduate of Touchet High School, as are some of the current teachers,

“They want to come back and work for us.”

He credits that to a community that treasures and supports its educational system. Touchet is a place where agriculture and school sports share a throne, and any superintendent coming to work here must understand that, Goble said.

That, and having to shoulder much of the load of running a district without a big support system, he noted.

Bell, who was working as an assistant superintendent on Omak, Wash., looked just right for the job when it opened about eight years ago.

Bell came in asking what the school needed — back then a new roof for the primary buildings was paramount — then did a “just dynamite” supervising and purchasing job when the community later passed a bond to address much-needed facilities work, Goble said.

“As a board that was very reassuring for us,” he said

School and community knit together

It’s not hard to see the impact of the town on the school, and vice versa. Goble tries to attend “farmers coffee time” at the Touchet Mercantile, where people don’t hesitate to dish out any gossip about the school district.

“Every kid is known and supported,” Bell said. “We have strong graduation rates because of that.”

Touchet has problems, of course, including a high rate of poverty and some homelessness. But Bell’s leadership has helped the school be solution-driven, including opening the gym’s shower for students who can’t shower at home, whatever version that might be. She also brought all-day preschool to the district and worked to make sure every student is fully immunized.

Bell brought in an outside expert to help with grant-seeking, a vital move to try for every penny out there to nourish education. She knew that was one hat too many and too important to leave on the table, Bell said.

Soon enough on this day it was time to walk the halls, checking in with students, admiring the fifth-grader’s puzzle skills and saying the Pledge of Allegiance when it comes over the public address system, followed by a reminder not to throw snowballs.

Then Bell would pass out ice cream bars to students of the month, reminding one fourth-grader to not belch in public.

“If I don’t address it, when will it get addressed” I don’t know,” she said of the notable burp.

Just part of a typical day, Bell said with smile as she handed out napkins for drippy fingers.

“I’m very hands on. I know all these kids and they all know me. In a small district it’s very kid-centric.”

For Bell to reach this point with students, her staff of 40 and the Touchet community required the longevity every small district wants to see in a superintendent, Bill Jordan said.

“The expectation is that you stick around. The Board wants someone who can stay awhile.”

Exactly what Bell had in mind when she told her husband she wanted to work in the land of “wine, wheat and wranglers,” she said.

“I love what I do. I love coming to work.”

Since it will no longer be her job come July, Bell said she hopes for someone who feels that same joy and honor to hold the superintendent’s office at 90 Champion St.

The application period for the position closes Friday. for more information go to www.touchet.k12.wa.us.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.

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