Opinion

School officials justify taxpayer-funded trips | Bob Roegner

When school isn’t in session, it is usually pretty quiet around Federal Way Public Schools. But two recent events have shaken the summer doldrums out early — and started a community discussion about the priorities and direction of the district just as the fall election season gets under way.

First, the school board gave Superintendent Rob Neu a $42,000-per-year salary increase. His new annual salary of $240,000 is both an incentive to stay three more years, and also brings his salary in line with other superintendents.

Secondly, Neu and school board president Tony Moore traveled to China and Australia as part of the district’s Global Initiative Project. Neu also went to Korea and Indonesia. The costs of the trips was more than $33,000.

Some in the community expressed shock at the amount of Neu’s salary increase and noted that if combined with the travel costs, the district could have just about hired two new teachers.

District employees have not had cost-of-living pay raises in recent years due to the economy, although contracted step increases were honored. One political leader noted that even though it may not be accurate, it could appear to the public that the money the district will receive from the Legislature as part of the McCleary decision is being spent by the board on the superintendent — and their international travels — rather than in the classroom.

Some say the salary increase rewards Neu, but doesn’t acknowledge the contributions of teachers and other staff in the district.

Neu and Moore defend the travel as necessary because they seek to prepare Federal Way students for a multi-cultural world. Neither was aware of other districts pursuing a similar course, but believe they are still on the correct course.

Their goal is increased knowledge, international communication, and language skills that will prepare Federal Way students to compete in the international arena. They envision a self-supporting international program that has both student and teacher international exchanges. They have set a goal of 100 international students studying in Federal Way in five years.

Although he has only been here three years, Neu has developed a following and is well liked in the community. Good superintendents are hard to find, and Neu has been approached by other districts during his time here.

Moore argues that should Neu leave, it would be time consuming and expensive to replace him and would be disruptive to the district’s goals. Neu is paid well, but at the national level, many districts pay more. Federal Way has been fortunate to have superintendents over the years who have stayed for extended periods of time. In today’s marketplace, is that a realistic expectation?

Like many school districts, Federal Way faces many challenges as it seeks to enhance education opportunities for its students. Recent reports on graduation rates show mixed results. The board’s goal is a 92 percent graduation rate, and Neu recently announced a goal of 100 percent. The current rate is 70 percent.

As a community, what are you willing to pay for your school superintendent? What is a fair price? And what do you expect from your superintendent?

And do you agree with the district’s international vision? Neu and Moore say that in the future, they want every student to have an international experience. But some question, with 21,000 students, whether that is a realistic goal.

Two positions on the school board are up for election. Incumbent Ed Barney is being challenged by Geoffery McAnalloy. Angela Griffin is not running again, and her seat is being sought by Carol Gregory and Medgar Wells. With questions circulating within the community and among district staff, it seems likely that salary and travel will be included in the candidates’ discussions along with graduation rates, budgets and district priorities.

The past few years have seen difficult and challenging economic times for many workers. A pay raise that’s similar to the median income in Federal Way, along with international travel, has generated much discussion. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to the board and superintendent.

But to achieve their goals, Neu and Moore say the travel will continue. While in Australia, Neu and Moore met with a consultant who told them about the Scotland Education Festival, along with events in England and Finland.

Neu and four school board members depart for Europe in September. Although the costs will be $50,000, the two district leaders say in the long run, it will be worth it.

An additional issue that is sure to keep the debate going through the fall election cycle is that school board member Angela Griffin, who is not running for re-election, will be going on the trip. Neu says her knowledge will be helpful to the district next year in a volunteer role. The only board member not going is Danny Peterson, who recently started a new job.

The salary increase and the travel have shined a light on an important topic: The future direction of your school district. Neu is a dynamic leader. Is he the visionary who has caught the wave of the future and will make Federal Way the state or national leader in international education? Will new opportunities provide the stimulus for more students to stay in school and show a significant increase in our graduation rates?

Are we on the right track? Will the increased public discussion impact the board elections?

 

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