What do we want in new Federal Way superintendent? | Inside Politics

Bob Roegner - Contributed
Bob Roegner
— image credit: Contributed

Former Superintendent Rob Neu left under a cloud and some very difficult circumstances.

Unfortunately, much of the community reaction has been to describe the things they didn’t like about Neu as a way of defining what they want in a new leader. As a singular measure for the board to follow, that may be too shortsighted. Because some of the reasons the board hired Neu four years ago are still valid.

Replacing Tom Murphy as superintendent would have been difficult under even the most ideal of circumstances. Murphy served the district for many years and was widely respected. But with Neu, the school board at the time thought they had the perfect candidate.

Neu appeared to be everything any district could want in a superintendent for the next generation of students. He was comparatively young, while still well experienced. He was handsome, smart, charismatic, articulate and a visionary of what the future of education might look like. He also had a family that could have been drawn from central casting. They were perfect. Everything seemed to fit for a long and successful marriage between the superintendent and district.

But whether it was miscommunication between the board and Neu, which seems unlikely, or between the board and the community, which is probably more accurate, the harmony was short-lived.

Federal Way, as with most Washington districts, expected a long-term relationship and an investment in their children’s lives and education from the superintendent that would span a decade or more. The community thought of itself as a destination for its new superintendent.

But that was the first of many miscalculations between the board and the community that wasn’t really Neu’s fault. To Neu, Federal Way was not a destination but a way station on his journey to his next promotion. He applied for another job within the first 18 months he was here, although he later withdrew. Neu didn’t advertise his interest in looking at bigger jobs but he didn’t really hide it either.

Many in the community were surprised when they learned that the school board did not include a residency requirement in Neu’s contract. Superintendents prior to Neu had lived here. Neu wanted to live in Enumclaw. Do we expect our next superintendent to live in Federal Way? Are we a destination for the next superintendent and do we expect a long-term commitment, or is four years enough for the right person?

If we want the person to live here, the community needs to be clear about that and the board needs to put it in the contract. Neu made his deal with the school board and was surprised to find out many in the community disagreed.

Neu was a strong believer in the Global Initiative project and traveled to Asia and Europe. He felt students long-term education needs included global participation and hands on international relationships.

Neu wasn’t alone; all five school board members approved of his plans and four traveled with him. Three of those board members are not in office any longer. But were the goals of the project worthwhile? Should the concept be continued? Certainly in a low-income working class community, the travel was way too much too soon. And Neu’s “I know best” attitude was off-putting. And Neu’s biggest weakness was his thin skin. In a city this size there is going to be disagreements on policy issues.

But was he wrong in the concept? If the current board supports international travel for them and the new superintendent, they need to make it clear to the community so there is no misunderstanding. The two new board members raised questions about the travel during their election campaigns.

There are many outstanding programs in the district, some started by Neu. Which ones are paying educational dividends? Which ones need to continue? What is the new superintendent’s record for building consensus or managing new concepts within the community?

Good superintendents are paid a lot of money because they are supposed to be very good at their job. The public seems to understand that fact of life. And while Neu’s financial package troubled many people, to some it was also about attitude.

After several years of no pay raises for teachers, the board gave Neu a one-year pay raise almost equivalent to the annual salary of a beginning teacher. We now have clues that it wasn’t a request on Neu’s part. The board said it was to ensure he stayed in the district, but he didn’t.

In many communities, including this one, parents have a closer relationship to their child’s teacher than they do to the superintendent. They see the teachers at school, in the store and at athletic events. They may come from the same socio-economic status. In short, they relate to and understand the teacher. It might take years for them to build trust in a superintendent. Should a new superintendent have a track record of support from teachers and other district staff? Is putting the needs of your employees ahead of your own needs a desirable quality in a new superintendent?

Lastly, when a superintendent leaves amid difficulties, there is always the temptation to retreat and play it safe. Our children’s educational needs can’t afford for the board to be to cautious or conservative. The choice of Sally McLean as the acting superintendent ensures a needed level of stability as we move forward. She is well known and well liked.

But many of the reasons the board hired Neu are still relevant. In his zeal to set up his next job, he may have tried to move us too fast but that doesn’t mean the goals were wrong. We need a superintendent that is Murphy, but we may also need a little of Neu included. And we might also need a Sally.

Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn: bjroegner@comcast.net.


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