Mike Parker feels he’s well-equipped to deal with the challenges facing Longview schools.
As superintendent of the Hoquiam School District, he leads a school system dealing with declining enrollment, economic hardship and the large numbers of low-income students. And he had to close a school.
Parker says those challenges are similar to the ones facing the Longview District, where he is one of two finalists to replace retiring Superintendent Suzanne Cusick
“Your challenges and my skills, I think, would be a good match,” Parker told 11 people gathered to ask questions and hear him speak Monday afternoon. About 20 people, including several school board members, attended a similar forum Monday evening. Similar forums with a second candidate, Christian Cutter, will take place at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Parker has served as superintendent in Hoquiam, a district with total enrollment of 1,700, since 2006. Before that, he worked as superintendent in Concrete, Wash.
During the recession, Parker reduced the district’s payroll by not replacing retiring workers and encouraging resignations, said Hoquiam School Board Chairman Chris Eide. Staff reductions helped keep the district’s finances strong during the downturn, Eide said. According to material provided by Parker, the district’s cash reserves increased from 2 percent to 11 percent of its total budget during his tenure.
“I think it was well understood by everybody that we had some financial challenges,” Eide said “We were able to come through the economic downturn very well.”
Parker describes himself as “competitive.” To combat enrollment declines in Hoquiam, he interviewed parents who sent their kids to other districts, then copied some of the programs that had lured them elsewhere. One of those programs was an online school operated in cooperation with a local YMCA.
Parker also placed brochures promoting Hoquiam schools in the offices of local realtors, and said he would do the same thing in the Longview area.
Despite those efforts, enrollment in the Hoquiam District has dropped 15 percent from fall 2009 to the spring of 2013.
Longview’s enrollment declines spurred the district to consider shuttering one of it’s high schools. Parker originally planned to close a middle school in Hoquiam, but he changed course and closed an elementary school after hearing dissenting opinions.
“You have to listen to the public, this is what I took away from it,” Parker said, adding that he’s not sure that closing a school would solve the Longview District’s facilities problems.
Parker also said that a higher percentage of students from low-income families shouldn’t be used as an excuse for poor classroom achievement.
“I don’t want to use the excuse that we’re poor,” Parker said. “I don’t want to use the excuse that we have no technology. I don’t want to use the excuse that we don’t have current facilities.”
In Hoquiam, Parker said he created grant-funded Sunday math tutoring programs at some schools to help low-income students, and he hopes to begin offering breakfast in the classroom to make sure all students are well fed.
“How do you teach a kid who comes to school hungry?” Parker said. “I want to make sure they have a breakfast that’s nutritious so they can learn.”
As of July 1, Parker will have two years remaining on his contract with Hoquiam, although the school board recently decided against extending the agreement. Eide said the decision was not a rebuke of Parker but a way to provide the board more “flexibility.”
School district superintendents typically work under three-year contracts, which are extended by one year every year, ensuring the superintendent always has a three-year contract. Eide said some new board members didn’t understand that process.
“As much as I would like to keep (Parker) here, I’d like to let the people know (in Longview) that they would be very lucky to have him,” Eide said.
Parker said he’s attracted to the Longview District, in part, by its challenges.
“I think I could bring something to the district they need,” Parker said. “I’ve always wanted to get to a district similar to Longview.”
Cusick retires June 30, and the school board hopes to choose her replacement during a May 12 meeting.