WSD superintendent defends hiring practices

Local residents say employment policies have led to ‘inappropriate’ hires

Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton lauded the district’s employment practices after a group of Washougal residents asked district leaders and Washougal School Board members to “refine and clarify” their hiring policies, which have led to, in their opinion, “inappropriate hires” during the past several years.

The residents — Barb Seaman, Charlie Shaffer, Rob Seaman, Tabitha Shaffer, Amanda Klackner, Mark Nightingale, John Klackner, Alison Nightingale, Janet Alder, Jeff Johnson, Stewart Lyall, Nancy Zarambo, Amy Lyall and Angie Cherry — expressed their concerns in a written public comment during the board’s meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 23.

“As you are aware, many personnel changes have taken place this year, with positions at various schools and at the district office having been vacated due to staff moving on from our district,” the letter states. “It’s an exciting time, and we are happy for those who have taken the opportunity to advance their careers.

“However, we are concerned about the way school administrators are being hired in the Washougal district. New hires made over the summer have important long-term implications for the health of the district, yet they were made quickly and apparently without much oversight or discussion. While the board technically approves at least some appointments made by the superintendent’s office, we worry about the process as a whole.”

Templeton said that while the board members are welcome to raise questions about any of the district’s policies and procedures, she’s “optimistic, excited and confident” that the district has “high quality people in every position.”

“We are a high-accountability district,” she told the Post-Record. “We’ve created that culture. The very best person for the position is who gets selected, and that’s how we roll. I’m very satisfied. In fact, I’m elated with where we are right now with our hiring processes.

“We have a very robust internal process that makes sure that we are, first of all, identifying what we’re about as a school district, (a statement) which then attracts folks to come to this organization. We are drawing folks from the Portland metropolitan area and Southwest Washington who are high quality leaders. They are choosing to come to the Washington School District because it is special here. We are an educational destination, and those leaders who are just joining us, they have high, high credibility, and they are poised to help us continue to rise to (become one of) the top performing districts in the state of Washington.”

The district makes its hiring policies and procedures available to the public via its website, but “does not appear to provide the level of detail that employees, parents, the community and the board need to fully understand the criteria and priorities the superintendent considers when making hiring decisions,” the letter states.

The letter references Board Policy No. 5000, which states: “The superintendent establishes the necessary skills, competencies, qualifications, education, experience, and past performance levels for each position,” and “Selection of staff is based on which candidate is the most qualified for the position, and is made pursuant to the district’s standard screening, interview, reference check process and equity requirements.”

“While this policy signals an intent to find quality staff, it does not describe the necessary skills and qualifications for each position,” the letter states. “It mentions the district’s standard screening and interview process, but does not spell out what these processes actually are. If there is a standard set of procedures regarding recruitment, interviewing and screening of candidates, the public should know what it is.

“Over the years, many of us who have lived, worked and raised kids in the Washougal district have noticed anomalies in how higher-level administrators are chosen for positions. On several occasions, appointments have been made quickly, even seemingly at the last minute. Some of those apparently have been made at the sole discretion of superintendents who were themselves serving in the last days of their employment with the district.”

The district enters the 2022-23 school year with four new principals (Mark Castle at Washougal High School, Heather Kassell at Columbia River Gorge Elementary School, Jake Healea at Canyon Creek Middle School and Brooke Henley at Cape Horn-Skye Elementary School), a new associate principal/athletic director (Brian Wilde at Washougal High), and a new director of teaching and learning (Tracey McLachlan).

“In our current administrative roles, we have a combination of folks who have been in our organization, have proven themselves, have educated themselves to their next step, and are in positions to lead, and folks who are joining us from other districts within the area who are also highly sought-after educators, leading districts and schools,” Templeton said. “I feel very good (about that).”

The letter also points out Policy No. 5005, which states, “The board has the legal responsibility of employing all staff” and “the responsibility of administering the recruitment process is assigned to the superintendent/designee.”

“This policy appears in the section concerning federal immigration law compliance, which addresses the need to follow the standard I-9 process certifying that employees are United States citizens,” the letter states. “Yet as a rule governing the hiring of staff generally, it is problematic, since it suggests that the recruitment process is held close and controlled entirely by the district superintendent.”

The district’s hiring practices have been inconsistent during the last several years, according to the letter, despite its stated policy of choosing the best possible candidate for each position.

“Appointments appear to have been made outside of any standard recruitment process that involves consideration of multiple candidates from both inside and outside the district,” the letter states. “While hasty hiring processes can succeed in filling a position quickly, they can also result in administrators who are not suited to the job.”

Tenpleton said that she’s taken a “thoughtful, responsive and responsible” approach to hiring educators.

“When I think about a leader moving into a position, I think about all of the aspects of the requirements of that particular job,” she said. “What skill set does that particular person have that’s going to not just meet those expectations but exceed those expectations? So from that vantage point, I would say that my process has been thoughtful.”

However, the residents claim that the district has made “inappropriate hires” that have led to “real consequences.”

“When we’ve had school administrators who were unqualified or unprepared for their positions, the effects on the system are negative and can be long-lasting,” the letter states. “When unsuitable candidates replace successful administrators, institutional knowledge is lost, long-term initiatives and system improvements lose momentum, staff confidence in (and cooperation with) its leaders diminishes, and the workload for remaining team members increases. Over the long term, students, and ultimately the entire Washougal community, pay the price.”

During the Aug. 23 meeting, board member Chuck Carpenter alluded to some hires that were made before Templeton was appointed as the district’s superintendent in 2018.

“Staff is aware, and therefore the community is aware, that during the last four superintendencies, we had two superintendents who had a practice of hiring friends, and the district has paid for that,” Carpenter said.

“Because of that, I think that we are under strict scrutiny as to our hiring processes. I know that the administration is being very proactive in that vein, and I think (the board members) need to be as well, making sure that at all times we are going to hire the very best person for every job in our school district.”

Carpenter said that he asked Templeton about the district’s hiring practices and “was satisfied with the response” that he received.