Spokane Journal of Business

The Journal’s View: Education leadership changes merit communities’ attention

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With recently announced retirements and outstanding openings, the Inland Northwest education system faces a leadership transition that the Spokane business community should monitor closely.

The changes are occurring at a time of changing landscapes of learning and evolving student pathways. As demographics shift, enrollments decline at the college level, and the need for greater collaboration across the spectrum of education options becomes more apparent. Bottom line: Strong leadership in education is going to be as crucial as ever in the coming years.

The Journal has used this space regularly in the past to emphasize the importance of a strong education system as an economic development tool. Well-run school districts are a key quality-of-life measure, one companies use to evaluate the region when researching an expansion and families look at when considering a move.

Arguably more importantly, the region’s colleges and universities, coupled with the K-12 system, provide an important workforce pipeline upon which employers rely. Strong leadership that understands the importance of education’s role in the greater community is more important than ever in an era pockmarked by labor shortages.

Right now, two of the three prominent four-year universities centered in the Spokane area are operating without permanent presidents.

Whitworth University initially had hoped to announce a new president last month but decided to take more time to select its next leader. The private school has said it would provide another update this month, and an announcement about a successor to Beck Taylor, who left last May, could be imminent.

At Eastern Washington University, David May has served as interim president since shortly after Mary Cullinan stepped down in the summer of 2020. The school is scheduled to conduct finalist interviews in early February and conclude its search late that month, with the successful candidate potentially starting this summer.

As those searches progress, Community Colleges of Spokane is in the early stages of preparing its search for a candidate to replace Christine Johnson, who announced earlier this month that she plans to retire at the end of this calendar year.

Days before Johnson’s announcement, Central Valley School District Superintendent Ben Small announced that he’d be retiring from the district at the end of this academic year.

With consistent track records of community involvement, these leaders might not be easy to replace.

Perhaps the most concerning vacancy is across the state line at North Idaho College. The college’s board fired former President Rick MacLennan last September, settled a lawsuit with MacLennan over the firing, and now is confronting an investigation into its accreditation eligibility.

While none of the other schools mentioned are facing anything resembling NIC’s issues, the struggles there can serve as a cautionary tale for those tasked with finding the right fit for a top post.

The Inland Northwest is fortunate in that it has become an attractive destination for those looking to relocate, and the national searches, both pending and ongoing, have the potential to draw top talent.

Many of the people who have left or will depart have been in their positions for 10-plus years—Taylor, Johnson, and Small served in their positions, respectively, for 11, 11, and 14 years. If searches are done right, their successors can provide stability and lead the education sector what’s proving to be a tumultuous decade.

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