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It’s been a long year for school superintendent Fred McCarthy

Yesterday in Olympia, South Whidbey school Superintendent Dr. Fred McCarthy was asked to describe his first year to fellow superintendents.

He freely admitted it was a bumpy ride at best.

Just days after taking over from interim superintendent Bob Brown in July 2006, McCarthy was in serious mediation over $3 million worth of lawsuits against the district. Then:

• On the first day of school, peace picketers surrounded the high school;

• The Primary School principal allegedly was caught with her hand in the cookie jar and is currently facing charges of first-degree theft;

• There have been four changes to the school board, prompting him to re-write every school board policy and install new procedures;

• The teacher’s union threatened an impasse over contract negotiations and picketed district headquarters;

• There were challenges related to multi-age classrooms and the need to downsize classes as enrollment declines;

• As the school year ended, McCarthy had to begin a search for new principals at the elementary and high schools;

• There were 10 days without power, seven snow days, seven late start days and five cancelled school days requiring a change to the high school graduation date.

“Dealing with our seniors’ parents about that change was my biggest hurdle all year,” he said.

Things have settled down for him, however. The lawsuit negotiations brought the final bill down to $100,000 with insurance covering 75 percent of that, the theft case is in the hands of the county prosecutor, new principals were hired, the teacher contract is signed, graduation went off without a hitch and he still managed to visit 120 classrooms this year.

Armed with the support of the school board — and his $125,000 annual salary, not including health benefits — McCarthy is undeterred by his whirlwind rookie year and is looking to the future.

“The potential for South Whidbey becoming a world-class operation is huge,” he said. “We’re going to be leaner while striving to be better. We’ve begun to bring in quality folks in leadership positions, we have great facilities and, most important, the support of a terrific community.”

Before arriving on Whidbey, McCarthy spent 16 years as an assistant superintendent in three Washington school districts — Marysville, Steilacoom and Riverview, near Duvall. Before that, he taught in both public elementary and secondary schools and received his Ph.D in administration from Seattle Pacific University.

He admits he had a lot to learn, and he’s learned a lot.

“A few key things I’ve realized over the last 12 months include the importance of knowing each employee and the need to instill shared core values, the challenge of maximizing resources, the value in reaching out to the South End community and the need for a strategic plan,” he said.

McCarthy wants the district to become more customer-oriented by listening carefully to students and their parents while using data — WASL and other measurements— to guide staff in making improvements.

To that end, McCarthy intends to gather 150 stakeholders, people both in and out of the school system, to help draft a five-year strategic plan.

“The plan will be a simple, clear-cut statement of things that need to be improved, written in such a way we can revise and update as needed,” he said.

Throughout the year, whenever McCarthy was introduced to someone new, he made a point of jotting the name down in his notebook.

“It’s important to remember the people I meet,” he said. “This is an extremely vibrant community with lots of resources and I plan to tap into that as time goes on. I’ve always believed in the need to listen and be open to new ideas.”

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