Sitting in education's hot seat
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:32 PM
"NAME: Richard Rick SchulteOCCUPATION: Superintendent, Oak Harbor School DistrictAGE: 51MARITAL STATUS: Married 26 years to Michele Collins, Broad View Elementary School Librarian. They have one daughter at Oak Harbor High School.BORN: Cincinnati, Ohio. SCHOOLS: Attended mostly parochial schools. Graduated high school in Chicago in 1967 and college in Washington D.C. in 1971.POST GRAD EDUCATION: University of Montana, University of WashingtonPhD: Seattle University.TYPICAL DAY: About 12 to 13 hours per day on the job, usually done in two shifts.HOBBY: Bikes, runs, swims and collects fountain pens.MUSIC: Switches between smooth jazz, oldies and country.TV: Mostly news and sports and CBS Sunday Morning. Seldom sees any show all the way through.BOOKS: Likes biographies of people such as Edison, Rockefeller and Lewis and Clark. Currently reading about Einstein.SCHULTE ON THE DISTRICT'S ADMINISTRATORS: I've hired all the principals here. I haven't hired people who are average. I hired people who I thought were the best.SCHULTE ON THE DISTRICT'S TEACHERS: Seventy percent of our teachers have master's degrees. I think the teachers we have are good for the community we have. They match.SCHULTE ON THE DISTRICT'S STUDENTS: Our kids are overall pretty good kids. I think they're getting a better education then we did.Rick Schulte got here the hard way - he pedaled.It was 1971. Armed with a new degree in philosophy from Georgetown University in Washington D.C., Schulte got on his bike and headed west. I guess it's what you do with a philosophy degree, he said in retrospect.About 4,300 miles and 100 days later he rode into Washington state and parked. But only briefly. Since then, Schulte has climbed coconut trees, mountains, and the education ladder, on his way to Oak Harbor.Today, as superintendent of Whidbey's largest school district, Schulte still covers a lot of ground. His job calls for him to be a combination of dignitary, public relations man, counselor, financial analyst, teacher, enforcer and cheerleader. He attends community gatherings, school sporting events, business luncheons, education conferences and is the district's key representative at school board meetings. He oversees a business with nearly 640 employees and roughly 6,000 daily clients. And he'll help supervise the expenditure of a new local levy if it meets voter approval on Tuesday.When Schulte first came to Oak Harbor in 1987, as the assistant superintendent, the district's annual budget was $19.5 million. Growth, inflation and advancing technology have now pushed that figure to more than $35 million per year. Schulte has been the district's head man since 1993 when he was promoted. His old position has never been refilled due to budget constraints.BALANCING THE BOOKSWhen he took charge the district was running on empty financially. The amount of Federal Impact Aid money, that had long been a key district funding source, had been declining steadily. At the same time, previous district officials had been draining off precious budget reserves to keep the district operating. The district had already shortened the elementary school day, reduced employee hours and cut some staff positions.There was still more cutting to do. The middle school day was shortened, secretarial and custodial hours were trimmed, the number of teachers was cut to the minimum allowed by the state and four administration positions disappeared. The district still spends less per pupil than any other district in the state.Tight budgets have been a constant during Schulte's administration. But so has progress. Though voters have not passed a local operations levy for three decades, they have given their backing to new construction bonds which are currently modernizing the district's aging buildings.The cash reserve is back as well. This year the district expects to maintain about $1.5 million in the bank for emergencies. It's an important fallback since the future of Impact Aid funding remains uncertain and unpredictable as to when it arrives.Schulte says good budgeting is not always complicated.Budgeting is a lot about setting priorities and about saying no, he said. It's easy to make everything a high priority but the hardest thing to do is say something is not a priority or not as high a priority.LONG AND WINDING ROADThe experience that Schulte brings to his job is varied - it includes a stint in the Peace Corps and his first administrative job on the Quinault Indian Reservation. I was surprised it was still around, Schulte said about reading a Peace Corps recruitment notice in 1974. He and his wife, Michele were both teaching in a private elementary school in Montana at the time and both decided they should sign up.The decision led to a two-year teaching stint on a tiny island in Micronesia. The one half square mile island could only be reached by boat and had no running water or electricity. They shared the task of teaching grades kindergarten through eight in a one-room, thatched-roof schoolhouse and lived primarily on fish, fruit and taro root. Six times per day Schulte would climb a palm tree to collect coconut milk.It gave me an appreciation for the benefits of developed industrial societies and the comforts they provide, he said. But it also gave me an appreciation for just the opposite - that you can be happy without all that stuff.After two years in the Pacific, the Schultes returned to teaching in Montana. But it wasn't long before they both accepted positions on the Quinault Indian Reservation on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. From there he took positions as a middle school assistant principal on Bainbridge Island and a middle school and a high school principal in Bremerton, before being hired in Oak Harbor.CHANGING TIMESSchulte said schools and kids have changed over the years.They are certainly different. Society is different. Their surroundings are very different from when I was in school, he said about today's students. He said families where both parents work, single parent families, the media, computers, drugs and AIDS are just a few of the changes that kids live with these days.Today there are also a whole range of students who didn't used to be in public schools, said Schulte.Special-needs children, kids with behavioral problems and low-performing students are all now a regular part of the school system creating a variety of new challenges for teachers and administrators.But Schulte said the latest version of state education reform is the strongest ever.What's new about this reform is we're say every kid will succeed. That's not something that's been in the American education philosophy, he said. In the past, the goal of schools was to produce students who could fill both skilled and unskilled jobs in the workplace - basically dividing kids into groups. Today, however, unskilled jobs are disappearing and the level of knowledge needed for the skilled jobs is increasing.Schools are better than they have ever been but they still aren't good enough for the society we're preparing (students) for, he said. There is more to learn, we're asking them to learn it better and we want all students to learn it. That's a higher expectation.But Schulte said students are meeting the challenges.We have more kids taking higher levels of math and higher levels of science. And there's a lot more science now than when I was in school, he said. Today they do a lot more writing. They are better writers on average. And all kids are continuing their education after high school. That wasn't the case no so long ago."