Teachers’ union names new president

Washougal district’s technology coach, James Bennett, to lead WAE

James Bennett took on a new but familiar role during the 2020-21 school year.

The longtime Washougal High School physics teacher became a “technology coach” for the Washougal School District, a vital position in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Every school seems to have a ‘technology’ person, (someone who other staff members can go to and say), ‘I’m stuck with my technology, I need help,’ and I’ve kind of been that go-to person on the staff at the high school for a long time,” he said. “Moving to this new position, I was really freed up to do that for the staff (on a full-time basis).”

Bennett will adjust to another new role in the 2021-22 school year as the new president of the Washougal Association of Educators (WAE), taking over for Eric Engebretson, who retired from his position as a fifth-grade teacher at Gause Elementary School at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

“I’ve had a lot of people over the years wanting me to (become the president), so I knew there was a lot of support for me to have a leadership position. I think I do a pretty decent job of leading; at least, other people seem to think so,” Bennett said.

Bennett may be new to the president position, but he’s not new to the WAE. He served as the union’s Washougal High building representative for several years and was a member of the WAE negotiations team that participated in bargaining sessions in 2018 and 2020.

“One of the things that I’ve done for the union the last couple of contract negotiations is working on the money side of things ? the compensation stuff, figuring out what is being offered, what does that mean, what does that look like in terms of dollars and cents for our members and whatnot,” he said. “I have a good head for the numbers part of it.

“I’m also pretty good at delegating. I feel like I bring a good sense of, ‘Who can get things done and who’s the right person to do a particular task?’ Setting up tasks and organizing people to accomplish them, I feel, is one of my strengths.”

Engebretson said Bennett will be a good fit for the position.

“(James is) a logical thinker,” Engebretson said. “He sees solutions very quickly as well. He’s been through the steps, from building rep on up, so he brings a wealth of experience. He’s absolutely a good ‘numbers’ guy. He was an integral part of the finance (discussions) and putting together the salary schedule and stuff like that. He’s analytical and he’s well-prepared, so I don’t think there will be too many surprises.”

Aaron Hansen, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources and student services, said Bennett will bring “a lot of strengths” to his new role.

“He’s organized, thoughtful, intentional, and he knows the collective bargaining agreement,” said Hansen, who worked with Bennett for many years as Washougal High’s assistant principal and principal. “He can represent different perspectives and can see different perspectives. He has a lot of experience with the school district and community that I think will be helpful in that role. If he doesn’t know (something), he’ll find out he’ll research, he’ll ask (questions). He’s inquisitive. He’s highly collaborative. All of those skills and experiences will be helpful.”

Bennett will help the teachers navigate continuing pandemic-related challenges during the upcoming school year. He said that he supports the district’s plan to hold full-time in-person class sessions.

“I like the idea of the union and the administration running the district together,” Bennett said. “When there’s important decisions to be made, we sit down and figure out how we’re going to do this. If we need to figure out how we’re going to open the schools (around) COVID, then we sit down and do that together.

“I feel like more so in the last few years the district has been much more willing to do that, and I think that’s made for a much better relationship between the union and the district. I don’t feel like things are contentious at all. There’s nothing lingering, no hard feelings from the strike from a few years ago. I think we’re in a really good place to work with the district and to build things and get things going in the right direction.”