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Oak Harbor schools chief takes position in Richland

Oak Harbor School District Superintendent Rick Schulte is hanging up his hat after 20 years at helm. He has accepted a job in Richland, Wash. - Ron Newberry / Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor School District Superintendent Rick Schulte is hanging up his hat after 20 years at helm. He has accepted a job in Richland, Wash.
— image credit: Ron Newberry / Whidbey News-Times

Rick Schulte knew a call might be coming that could change his life.

But not out of a car window.

“Good luck in Richland!” shouted a passerby.

Schulte could enjoy a laugh from that light moment while he was jogging Saturday morning.

But things turned more serious by Monday afternoon when the real call came into his Oak Harbor office from Richland School District.

He was informed that he was that district’s No. 1 choice for its new superintendent post.

The school board was about to vote on the recommendation but wanted to make sure Schulte was still on board with his decision to leave the place he’s called home since 1987.

Schulte said he was committed to make the change.

“It’s exciting,” Schulte said, “and terrifying.”

Schulte’s decision leaves the Oak Harbor School District in strange territory.

When Schulte officially steps down as the Oak Harbor schools’ leader on June 30, it will end a string of 20 years in one place, believed to be the second longest streak among current school superintendents in the state.

For the first time in two decades, the Oak Harbor school board finds itself engaged in a superintendent search.

The board met with Schulte and pondered its next step at its normally scheduled school board meeting Monday night.

Although Schulte will be detached from the process of finding a successor, he did endorse assistant superintendent Lance Gibbon as the natural choice to succeed him.

Schulte also offered some general guidance on where to start with the succession process, emphasized the significance of the decision by the school board and how important it is to act quickly to start what can typically be a lengthy process.

The board is planning to meet again Monday night with sole focus on the superintendent position. It is looking at bringing in a third party to run a workshop, answer questions and offer guidance.

“It hasn’t been done in 20 years. We want to do it well,” school board member Christine Cribb said. “We want to be proud of our decision when we’re done with the process.”

“We want the process to be open.,” Cribb said. “We want the public to be able to voice their opinions and share with the board.”

“It is the single-most-important decision we will make,” said Corey Johnson, a school board member for seven years.

Schulte, 64, had told the school board he was ready for a new challenge, informing members he didn’t want his contract renewed after the 2013-14 school year.

The Richland School District learned of his availability and made him one of three finalists last month. Schulte visited the Tri-Cities twice and school board members from Richland came to Oak Harbor last week to further evaluate its candidate.

The visitors interviewed Schulte’s associates and also saw first-hand the modern of school buildings that were constructed under Schulte’s tenure.

The Richland School District recently passed a $98 million bond to build five elementary schools and a middle school.

“Oak Harbor is really in good shape,” Schulte told the board and audience at Monday’s meeting.

“It is a really good school district. That’s because a lot of us put a lot of work and effort into that. One person doesn’t do all that.”

He said when guests from Richland came on their site visit, they were in awe of some of the facilities.

“I know they weren’t just looking at me,” Schulte said.

“They were looking at Oak Harbor School District. I know that many of the stories you told to the Richland visitors when they were here made them sound like they were a reflection of me. They are really a reflection of us. We really are very good. I think everybody here should be proud of that.

“Some of my bigger worries about Oak Harbor is that Oak Harbor doesn’t think it’s as good as it really is. That’s a shame. I think we really are a lot better than sometimes we think we are.”

Schulte came to Oak Harbor in 1987 as assistant superintendent and took over his role as superintendent in 1993 when Roger Woehl stepped down.

Gibbon, 44, said he is interested in succeeding Schulte. He is flattered by Schulte’s support and considered it a honor to work with him during his six years as assistant superintendent.

“He leaves very big shoes to fill,” Gibbon said.

“Ultimately, I want what’s best for our school district.”

“Quite honestly, I consider it a privilege to work with Rick and I would consider it a privilege to be able to lead the district if that’s what the school board selects. But I will support whatever their decision is.”

Schulte starts his new job on July 1.

“It absolutely feels strange,” Schulte said. “To be in one location and in one job for as long as I have, it’s very unusual for a superintendent to stay in one job for 20 years. This is the town we raised our daughter in. I have a lot of friends here. Everywhere I go I know people. That feels really good. It feels very comfortable. So the thought of moving to a place where really I don’t know anybody … on the other hand I have the opportunity to meet a lot of new people.

“On one hand, there’s the excitement of meeting a lot of new people. And on the other hand there is the sadness of leaving behind many friends.”

Then he smiled.

“I’m still in the state of Washington,” he said. “I’m not going that far away. I’m hoping that I will still maintain contact with a lot of people in Oak Harbor.”

 

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