Issaquah School District superintendent to retire in June

January 15, 2013

By Lillian O'Rorke

Steve Rasmussen, Issaquah School District superintendent, sits in his office Jan. 14. The 62-year-old educator plans to bid farewell to the district when he retires June 30. By Lillian O’Rorke

Steve Rasmussen, Issaquah School District superintendent, sits in his office Jan. 14. The 62-year-old educator plans to bid farewell to the district when he retires June 30. By Lillian O’Rorke

Superintendent Steve Rasmussen intends to retire June 30 after leading the Issaquah School District for six years.

The superintendent announced the decision Jan. 9 to the Issaquah School Board.

“I have been lucky in life and have been able to do what I chose to do, and that is being a teacher,” Rasmussen said after the board accepted his resignation. “It has been an honor and a privilege to serve with you.”

Rasmussen’s retirement caps off a 40-year career in public education in Washington that has included teaching, coaching and leading three school districts.

He started as an agricultural teacher at Enumclaw High School in 1973, where he taught for five years.

“He was one of my most favorite teachers,” said Vicki Wales, who took Rasmussen’s class as a freshman and sophomore at Enumclaw High more than three decades ago. “He just had such respect for all the students. He was one of those people that gave you confidence and made you feel like you could accomplish almost everything.”

Rasmussen made the transition to superintendent in 1989 when he took the helm at the Deer Park School District in Spokane County. From there, he served as superintendent of the Franklin Pierce School District in Pierce County until he came to the Issaquah School District in 2007.

Rasmussen’s contract was extended last year to June 30, 2015, with no changes made to his $212,100 annual salary. But now is the right time to retire, he explained in a Jan. 10 interview.

“It’s time for other people to have this wonderful opportunity,” he said. “And there may be other opportunities for me, I don’t know.”

Rasmussen added that his decision to retire had nothing to do with the recent Liberty High School schedule debate. Last month, the school board ultimately ruled against the superintendent’s recommendation to switch the school from a block schedule to a six-period day.

What to know

Per Issaquah School District policy, the Issaquah School Board has complete control over hiring a new superintendent, including the timeline and job specifications.

The last time a new superintendent was hired, the board used a national search firm — Iowa-based Ray and Associates — in August 2006. The process lasted until May 2007.

Sara Niegowski, the school district spokeswoman, said she plans to put together a comprehensive website with information about the hiring process once it has been established by the board.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s right there together,” he said. “I pushed really hard to change the Liberty schedule…maybe I wasn’t convincing enough to do that. But the board made its decision.”

‘He was involved in everything’

After Rasmussen submitted his resignation Jan. 9, board President Brian Deagle, with tears in his eyes, was speechless for moment.

“I will say” — Deagle paused — “the district has come a long way in the time you joined shortly after Suzanne (Weaver) and I joined the board. The legacy you are leaving in terms of skilled and passionate teaching and staff…It is quite a testament to the strength of the district to the caliber of people that you have brought in.”

The next day, Rasmussen said his inbox was flooded with emails from district staffers and teachers, congratulating him on his retirement.

“He was not just someone that sat in the office on Holly Street. He was out visiting schools, seeing students,” said former school board member Jan Colbrese, who resigned in December 2011 after 12 years on the board. “He was involved in everything.”

Rasmussen’s goal each year was to visit all 24 schools in the district by Thanksgiving and, by March, he tried to have attended at least one staff meeting at every facility.

“I’m a teacher, I belong in the building,” he said. “You really break down a lot of bridges by being accessible…and letting them know that I put my shoes on the same way they do, one at time.”

Rasmussen said establishing relationships — especially with community groups, such as the Issaquah Schools Foundation, PTSA and the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce — helped the district make it through the Great Recession when the state cut $16 million from Issaquah’s education budget.

“To go through the time that we have gone through in the last six years and still keep student achievement as high has it has been is really something,” Colbrese said.

‘Lifelong career educator’

Colbrese was on the board when Rasmussen was selected out of a pool of 38 applicants. She explained that the district was looking for someone with a strong understanding of education reform and funding in Washington. Rasmussen fit the bill.

“He was a lifelong career educator in Washington state,” she said. “He was well-known and respected across the state.”

But not everyone who was there for Rasmussen’s hiring is happy with his performance. Claudia Donnelly’s children went to Liberty High School, and she was there when, as part of the application process, Rasmussen met with community members.

“When he interviewed with the public for the position, he was just full of ideas and enthusiastic about coming to the district,” she said. “And it turns out he’s just like everyone else, not listening to the public.”

Donnelly explained that she has been concerned for several years that Issaquah does not offer good vocational options to students who are not college-bound. She’s voiced these concerns to the district administration, including Rasmussen, but said that those suggestions have fallen on deaf ears.

“I’m sure there are a lot of things I would have maybe done differently,” Rasmussen said. “You can’t try to be perfect — there is no such thing. But you do the best you can with the brains, resources and people that you have.”

The superintendent still has several months at the helm, and said he plans to use that time not only to help the district smoothly transition to its next phase, but also to work on developing the new teacher/principal evaluation system. Earlier this year, Rasmussen laid out a plan for his cabinet to recommend changes to the district’s homework policy by June, which he still wants to accomplish before he leaves, he said.

“It’s not easy. I’ve known a lot of superintendents, and they are people and they have strengths and weaknesses,” Colbrese said. “A transition in leadership is always a good time to say, ‘Where are we now and what is the next step we want to take?’”

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