“We are not settling. We are getting the right person for the job.”

Those words, spoken by Waitsburg School Board Chairperson Carol Clarke, reflect a determination by the board to find just the right person to lead the small, rural school district.

With the planned resignation of current superintendent Mark Pickel, the board has contracted with Educational Service District 123, out of Pasco, to lead the search for his replacement.

The job includes heading Waitsburg Elementary School as principal.

Already a Waitsburg resident, Pickel came to the district from an assistant principal job at Garrison Middle School in Walla Walla in 2019. He was one of a handful of superintendents in the area in their first year on the job when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The situation was hard on every school leader, teacher, student and family, Clarke said. “It was like Lewis and Clark’s first expedition, with no guides going on ahead. We did not know what was around the corner.”

A search consultant told Waitsburg’s school board members that the pandemic brought a wave of school superintendent resignations and new searches, Clarke said Monday.

It also brought to the forefront the vital importance of the job in small communities, she added.

In places such as Waitsburg, a successful school chief has to become woven into the fabric of the community.

“You cannot be myopic, you have to have great peripheral vision to see the big picture. That’s true anywhere, but it seems more true in a small district,” she said, noting that community engagement is part of the official qualifications list.

Waitsburg will repay the effort, Clarke knows from her own experience. She worked as the district’s superintendent from 2004-2017.

“In a small district the superintendent gets to know the kids, gets to know the families. Hopefully it will be someone who recognizes they will be in a fishbowl. You become not just the CEO of the largest employer in town, you become the face that is known.”

Clarke calls herself “rather introverted,” but treasures the fact that the town’s residents are so receptive of her, whether she’s leading the schools or seated on the board. “They want someone they can talk to.”

No current employee is in line for the job, meaning the next school chief likely will come from a different ZIP code.

That person must be deeply invested in the success of children, their families and school staff for a long-term commitment, Clarke said. “One of the things people worry about is we don’t want to be a steppingstone. We don’t want to be a way station, on their way to another place.”

That the district can offer a house for a superintendent to occupy adds some permanency, but the board can also flex if someone lives in a nearby community, she said.

Partnering with the regional education service folks on finding candidates for the district of about 280 students is working well for the relatively new school board, Clarke noted. “They know us well enough to help with developing our brochures and information and potential recruiting. And they have a vested interest because they work with us.”

The superintendent job posting will be available on ESD 123’s website at esd123.org/employment on Friday, Jan. 13. Applications are due Feb. 24.

Clarke and other board members expect to announce the successful candidate no later than March 23. The job begins July 1.

"I believe the right person is out there," Clarke said. "I am very hopeful. Educators have been through a lot, and my goal is to support those in the classroom and in administration."

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 health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.

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