As a former math and science professor and researcher, Jim Cooper is pretty good with numbers. But he wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of letters that he faced during his first meeting as a member of the Washougal School District (WSD) board of directors, held Dec. 10 at Gause Elementary School.
“It’s a bigger learning curve than I anticipated because of the acronyms and jargon that’s used. It’s impenetrable,” he said, smiling. “The alphabet soup of acronyms was overwhelming.”
Cooper, who defeated Bill Durgan in November’s general election for Teresa Lees’ No. 1 director position, will have plenty of time to learn what abbreviations like SEBB (School Employees Benefit Board), OPSI (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) and EPO (educational programs and operations) mean. He said he is looking forward to the challenge.
“I’m learning things,” he said. “I’m taking a couple of training sessions online, and I meet with district staff and talk through their jobs. I’ve (already) learned about the open meetings laws and the public records laws, and that’s important stuff.”
He received guidance, along with a warm welcome, from superintendent Mary Templeton and board members Cory Chase, Ron Dinius, Angela Hancock and Donna Sinclair on Dec. 10.
“It seems like it’s a great team,” Cooper said of the Washougal school board. “I think it’s an impressive board compared to what I’ve heard. My wife was on a school board years ago, and she was a principal also, and hearing the nightmares of other boards, this seems like a dream. I want to learn how I can best contribute with my science background and my skill set, and where I can plug in and help improve (the district), even though it’s pretty good.”
Cooper moved to Washougal in 2016 from California with his wife, Betty Cooper. For 28 years, he worked as a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology and associate dean of mathematical, life and physical sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). He also served as a research scientist for Atlantic Richfield Company Solar and Stanford University, and founded Vanalytics LLC, an enology lab and consulting service.
“I think Jim will do a great job on the school board because I know he is thoughtful, intelligent, willing to learn, has a passion for public education, and as a scientist and an educator he will round out our board nicely,” said Sinclair, who has known Cooper since 2017 and encouraged him to run for the position. “I also hear he is good with numbers, and we always need that.”
Cooper, who grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, graduated from Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, with a degree in biology, and from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, with a doctor of philosophy degree in biology and biological sciences.
“I think I have a totally different background (than the other board members),” he said. “Health education, medical, more science university — it’s different from, say, Donna, who is a history person. It’s just a different perspective that’s also important. I think it seems like a pretty complementary fit.”
Cooper is proponent of vocational programs, and is eager to learn more about WSD’s career and technical (CTE) offerings. After the Dec. 10 meeting, he spoke briefly with WHS’ Maragret Rice, who Templeton called “the best CTE director in the state” during the meeting.
“That program is awesome, and there’s lots of ways I could see it expanding to include more kids, even if they’re going to college,” Cooper said of WHS’ CTE program. “Getting eyes involved in a program that has internships (is critical). Seeing what those opportunities did to my students’ motivation was eye-opening.”
He added that he is excited to see Washougal offers more CTE opportunities at the high school level.
Cooper is the current president of the Washougal Arts and Culture Alliance (WACA) board, and a member of the Port of Camas-Washougal’s Parkersville National Historic Site advisory committee.
“I know him to be a calm, thoughtful, quiet voice of reason,” said Washougal resident Chuck Carpenter, a member of WACA. “We asked him to chair the Washougal Arts and Culture Alliance because of his patient leadership. I am confident that as a school board member he will seek to understand before wanting to be understood.”