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It's official: Michael Soltman is new superintendent of Vashon Island schools

Superintendent Michael Soltman ... leaving for Vashon Island School District - Richard Walker / file photo
Superintendent Michael Soltman ... leaving for Vashon Island School District
— image credit: Richard Walker / file photo

By Leslie Brown
Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber

Michael Soltman says he's coming home.

Selected Monday night as Vashon Island School District's new superintendent, Soltman lived on Vashon for 12 years before moving to San Juan Island to become that district's top administrator.

He said he's thrilled to be returning to Vashon, where his two teen-age sons, Jordan and Tom, already live. Both attend Vashon High School.

"I'm excited by the opportunity," he said Friday. "I love working in small communities that are very supportive of schools, and I look forward to working on Vashon."

Soltman, 55, who will make $145,000 as the head of Vashon's public schools, was the unanimous choice of the district's five-member board. He rose to the top of a pack of applicants that at one point numbered 26 and which included six semi-finalists.

"He seems to be able to encourage change without leaving people feeling defensive, which is pretty key," said Laura Wishik, the board's vice chairwoman.

Board chairman Bob Hennessey added, "I think the entire board is ecstatic. Michael's values align perfectly with our community's values. And he has the creativity and experience to lead us to be even better than we are today."

Soltman will oversee the 1,500-student district at a challenging time. Enrollment is declining; the budget, in part due to a significant shortfall at the state level, is in dire shape, and the high school is in disrepair. School district voters went to the polls today to vote on a $75.5 million bond measure.

During a tour last week, Soltman said, he was struck by the high school's sorry condition. "That high school campus has got to go," he said.

But even with the challenges, Soltman said he sees considerable strength at the Vashon district and is excited by the potential the school system represents.

"Academically, kids perform really well there, which means that education is a strong value at home and that parents support the schools," he said.

The staff, he added, is "well-seasoned, and the administrative team is strong and focused on running a good school system."

And even if the school bond measure fails, he said, "I won't be at all discouraged."

"If it doesn't pass, we just need to consider it the first phase of a campaign and realize that people know a lot more about the problem," Soltman said.

A loss at the polls could mean that it was the wrong time economically for the measure, he said. Or it may mean the proposal was too big and needs to be brought forward in smaller pieces, he added.

"I'd work to understand what the variables were ... and to make the adjustments and put it up again," he said.

Soltman has led the 850-student San Juan district for the past seven years, where he's shepherded some changes that have been well-received by district staff and parents.

Soltman, for instance, was concerned by the fact that the district was subsidizing the school lunch program to the tune of $30,000 a year and that the food being served wasn't particularly good. As a result, said Boyd Pratt, who chairs the San Juan school board, Soltman worked with the board to launch the Experience Food Project, "reinventing the menu" and partnering with farms in Skagit Valley to bring in fresh, local food.

Since the lunch program's inception last fall, the number of students buying school lunches has doubled, Pratt said, and the food program is growing closer to being "revenue neutral," the board's goal.

Soltman is also very "foresightful," Pratt said. Two years ago, he was able to see a budget crisis looming on the horizon and began a private fundraising campaign that brought in more than $560,000 in community donations, Pratt said.

"It was pretty extraordinary for our community," Pratt said. "It's that sort of connection with the community and being able to work with a wide range of people ... that has made Michael such a strong leader."

Pratt also praised his development of the Griffin Bay Learning Center, an alternative high school with a program that caters to the home-school population, a "virtual academy" for those who want to study online and an alternative program for students who have dropped out of high school. More than 30 kids who had dropped out have come back into the system and earned a high school degree in the past three years.

"That's the kind of innovative thinking Michael's good at," Pratt said.

But Soltman has also run into some difficulties, the biggest of which has pitted several residents against the school district for its plans to develop sports fields adjacent to their homes. The complex proposal centered around a piece of land in Friday Harbor and a partnership among the town of Friday Harbor, a private recreation group that wants to develop the land for sports fields and the school district, which hopes to use the fields.

"He's been an effective mediator between the aggrieved parties, from the standpoint that he's kept everyone from going to their respective lawyers," said King Fitch, Friday Harbor's town administrator. "He's put calm on the water. But he has not solved the problem."

Pratt agreed that the sports facility issue has been a charged one and said some people, as a result, "will be glad to see him go."

But many more, he predicted, will consider his departure a loss for the community.

"He's made a case for why public education needs community support in our day and age," Pratt said. "And that will be missed. I'm sad to see him go."

Soltman's letter to the community
Soltman e-mailed this letter to "colleagues and friends" today:

My appointment to the Vashon superintendency became official at last night's Vashon school board meeting. As you can imagine, the joy in living again with my sons in their last few years of high school helps to balance the sadness I contemplate in leaving you wonderful people in this amazing community. I have thrived professionally and personally here and have cherished the relationships we have built, the challenges we have faced, the progress we have made together, and the opportunities we have created for the children in our community. Thank you for these incredible seven years, for your trust, and for your partnership in serving our kids.

Our school board meets Thursday to plan for the future of leadership in our district. I applaud the foresight and leadership of our Board Chair, Boyd Pratt, and I'm confident that our board will act wisely and quickly to find a capable person to lead our district into the future. I'm sure that community, faculty and staff will have opportunities to provide thought and input into the selection process.

And, I'm here through June and there is much to be done over the next four months. We must implement our financial plan with flexibility to deal with any additional challenges. We must pursue a strategy to find alternative funding to support programs that can no longer be funded through the general fund. We must plan carefully to reorganize and restructure programs within the resources we have. And, we must maintain the integrity and excellence in our schools despite the current economic conditions by preserving our foundation in anticipation of better economic times ahead.

You have my continuing promise and commitment to apply all of my energy and focus to these challenges over the next several months.

Yours truly,
Michael Soltman

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