For many families and teachers in the Peninsula School District, losing a capital bond by 250 votes this spring felt like rock bottom. Despite widespread wealth and strong academic achievement, the fast-growing district remains mired in a space crisis, thanks to the $220 million bond barely missing the state’s silly supermajority threshold.
Well, rock bottom just got a little rockier with news that Superintendent Rob Manahan has resigned after less than two years on the job. Just months after his contract was belatedly extended through the 2020 school year, he accepted the same position with Snoqualmie Valley School District.
In a written statement, the 57-year-old Manahan diplomatically described his stint in the Gig Harbor-centered district as a “bright spot in my career.” He offered little in the way of explanation for walking away from a place where he has grandchildren, a district that should feel like home after teaching here in the early ‘90s.
But after an election campaign in which he made dozens of appearances on the chicken-dinner circuit, led school tours and other tireless efforts, trying to win over voters who haven’t passed a school bond since 2003, Manahan decided to leave before that bright spot had a chance to become a brighter line.
Combined with the bond failure, Manahan’s quick exit should cause the Peninsula community — particularly, the school board — to take time for thorough self-reflection. Otherwise, an atmosphere of surrender and turnover could spread through the district.
With the departure of Manahan and the recent resignation of long-time board member Rand Wilhelmsen, education leaders have two important holes to fill.
Stability at the top is often a leading indicator of school success. Having a quality superintendent in place for several years can bear fruit in districts big or small, whether in the form of steadily increasing graduation rates (Tacoma) or securing voter trust to approve funding measures in low-income communities (Franklin Pierce).
Tacoma and Puyallup have enjoyed administrative continuity for six years and counting. Clover Park and Bethel have had the same school chiefs for over a decade. Ditto Franklin Pierce, where 11-year veteran Frank Hewins was named Washington's superintendent of the year in 2017.
Superintendents set the education culture, build staff morale and give families hope. Ideally, those who do it well find enough reciprocal value in their work that they put down roots.
Manahan now seeks a better fit in a community not remarkably different than the one he leaves behind. Snoqualmie Valley and Peninsula are both Puget Sound suburbs absorbing rapid residential growth — one on the doorstep of the Cascades, the other the gateway to the Olympics. Each is a high-achieving district with 7,000 to 9,000 students, 80 percent white, less than 30 percent poor.
One key difference: Snoqualmie voters easily passed their most recent school bond in 2015, undaunted by the 60-percent supermajority hurdle.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Manahan spoke highly of Snoqualmie’s school board: “They get things done. They move quickly. They clearly value their superintendent.”
Manahan is known as an instruction-focused leader who inspired Peninsula staff by building relationships. But it takes years to attain greatness, as well as a board that doesn’t micromanage and that makes timely decisions (for example, putting tax measures on the February ballot, not April).
And, of course, taxpayers must subscribe to the vision of developing every student, from Canterwood to the Key Peninsula. That means investing in adequate school buildings.
In a statement expressing regret about Manahan’s resignation, the board said it would shift to finding an interim superintendent; it said the selection process was “under construction.”
At least something in the Peninsula School District is.