Oak Harbor finds special ed director

The Oak Harbor School Board last week approved hiring Gail Cleveland as the school district’s new special education director.

Cleveland replaces Laura Rice, who resigned effective from the end of the school year after two years of service.

Rice said she is moving back to Michigan to be closer to family.

Superintendent Rick Schulte said that Rice brought expertise to the position and was knowledgeable of the numerous regulations for special ed students.

Some tense times occurred during Rice’s tenure as special education director.

One episode came when the district planned to reconfigure the special education preschool at Oak Harbor Elementary and spread it around to several schools. On several occasions, staff and parents attended school board meetings and questioned the need for the change.

Rice would have been responsible for implementing the new configuration.

Schulte said that situation shows the emotional disagreements that can occur in a situation where no clear answer exists.

“Argument and disagreement comes with the job and a certain amount of that is healthy,” Schulte said.

He said such job-related tension may have been a factor in Rice’s resignation, but that her letter only mentioned she wanted to live near family.

Rice declined to further comment.

Schulte said the special education director position can be a difficult job to fill. Generally a large demand statewide for qualified special education directors exists.

Oak Harbor received 10 applications and interviewed four candidates before offering Cleveland the position.

The job can be a difficult one to succeed at, Schulte said, because it’s hard to balance budget concerns with meeting the needs of students and families.

He said the rules guiding special education programs frequently change and it’s a challenge to stay up to date.

Schulte said he hired Cleveland because of her varied background in special education.

Cleveland has more than 30 years of experience and is coming out of retirement to take over.

She retired in 2000 as the special education and student services director for the Great Falls, Montana, public schools.

In addition to her years as director, she was responsible for the education programs of 1,500 students and administered a $5.5 million budget. Before serving as director, she was coordinator for school psychology services for 10 years.

She has a doctorate of education from the University of Montana and a master’s degree in special education from Michigan State University.

Even though she was hired, she hasn’t arrived in Oak Harbor yet.

Shulte said the attractiveness of living on Whidbey Island and the community support were factors in drawing a highly qualified professional to the position.

The hiring of Cleveland makes her the fourth special education director in eight years. Prior to Rice’s hiring, Bill Young served on an interim basis for one year as a replacement for Sue Ellen Atkinson, who served as director for five years.

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