Superintendent candidates meet the public
June 25, 2008 · Updated 11:56 AM
"Evaluations of each candidate appear in a separate storyDarrington superintendent eyes South WhidbeyMartin LasterEducationPh.D., Educational Leadership and Public Policy, University of Denver, Denver, Colorado, 1984.M.P.A., Business and Public Management, University of Denver, 1983.M.A., Special Education in Gifted Education, University of Denver, 1982.Specialist Certificate, Reading (K-12) Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, 1977.B.A., English and Secondary Education, Ohio University.Last five jobsSuperintendent, Darrington School District, Darrington, Wash., 1996 to present.Superintendent, Craig City School District, Craig, Alaska, 1993 to 1996.Assistant Superintendent, Mat-Su Borough School District, Palmer, Alaska, 1990 to 1993.Principal, Skwentna School (K-12) & Finger Lake School (pre-K-6), Matanuska Susitna Borough School District, Palmer, Alaska, 1987-1990.Principal, Ambler School (K-12), Northwest Arctic 13 Borough School District, Kotzebue, Alaska.Martin Laster didn't want to stand there and present a slide show on student learning to the audience of 75 strangers last Monday night.It's not my style to do this much talking, said the superintendent of the Darrington School District, who hopes to win the same job at the larger South Whidbey School District.Instead of giving a lecture, Laster requested ideas from the audience on what's important in giving children a good education. Like a TV talk show host, he walked around the room, responding to questions and thinking aloud. Work with me, he urged the crowd. And they responded by peppering him with ideas, which he interpreted in light of the education reform taking place in this state.After exchanging ideas, Laster pointed out, We know what good teaching and learning is. We must support the expectation that you (the student) will succeed.Laster described himself as a listener. What I need to do is listen to you folks, he said. Asked about his management style he responded, I believe in people. My job is to support them. I set clear goals, I listen.Laster supports a team approach in what he called decision developing, but added, I need to take responsibility for those decisions.Although sincere and thoughtful, Laster also displayed a sense of humor. His wife, sitting in the audience with their two children, unknowingly set up the biggest laugh when she told of the time when he was a teacher puzzled by a very bright but troubled young man who refused to read a certain book. Finally, out of frustration, her husband told the boy, I'll wrestle you, and If I win you're going to read this book.He won, said Laster's wife, proudly.When the resulting applause subsided, Laster quipped. Well, he was a first grader, resulting in the biggest laugh in three consecutive nights in which the public met the superintendent candidates.But mostly it was a serious hour and 45 minutes, with Laster fielding questions from the audience. Dr. Patrice O'Neill criticized the policy of suspending students from school, but Laster declined to rule it out. We need to demonstrate progressive discipline, he said. Suspension is a tool that needs to be used. A principal's job is a very, very difficult job.Asked about budgeting, Laster pointed to his experience as chief financial officer for an Alaskan school district, and said one key is good communication, providing budget information to the public in a narrative flow, rather than pages of numbers.Parents who homeschool their children found support when they questioned this candidate. The goal, he said, is flexible environments and successful students -- we need options. The school district's present support of homeschool families reflects really well on this community, he said.On budget matters, Laster strongly supported the arts and athletics, rejecting the term extra-curricular in favor of co-curricular to describe their importance. Should a school levy ever fail, however, the priority is to do everything you can to protect the classroom.The alternative candidateGary D. CohnEducation:Doctor of Philosophy, University of Washington, College of Education, 1999.Superintendent Certificate, U.W., 1997.Principal Certificate, Western Washington University, 1989.Master of Business Administration, Seattle University, 1984.Bachelor of Arts, University of Puget Sound, majors in Economics and Business Administration, 1977.Last five jobsVice president, Lake Washington Technical College, 1991 to present.Coordinator, administrator, supervisor, Lake Washington School District, 1985-1991.Teacher-coordinator, Northshore School District, 1980-85.Instructor, Eastern Washington University, 1980 (taught business communication to faculty on sabbatical).Marketing representative, Four-Phase Systems, Inc., 1977-80.He looked like a businessman with his sleek suit and matching haircut, and that's just what he was before becoming an educator.Gary Cohn described himself as the alternative candidate for superintendent of the South Whidbey School District as he met the public on Tuesday night. Unlike the others, he hasn't been a superintendent or assistant superintendent, although he has the credentials to serve in those capacities.He opened with a rather dry but detailed 12-minute projector-based presentation on student learning, but loosened up when he started answering questions from the audience of about 50. And his business/technical background was obvious.Computers are the most important thing you can provide students today, he said, adding staff development, principal leadership, and a high adult to student ratio in schools as requirements for effective education.Cohn has been with the Lake Washington School District since 1985, the last nine years as vice president of Lake Washington Technical College. His wife is principal of Juanita High School.He leads the college's administrative services operations, with supervision responsibility for a staff of 73 as well as planning, assessment, technology implementation, computer services and the like.Cohn began his career as a marketing representative for a data processing systems manufacturer and international marketer of computer equipment and software. But after a few years he changed course because he had always found K-12 education interesting.So what makes you think you can be a superintendent? Cohn asked himself, interpreting a convoluted question from a member of the audience. Like many of his comments, this prompted a chuckle from the audience. Because over the last 15 years five superintendents have said, 'You need to be a superintendent,' he answered. Some lucky district (will get me), he added, again hitting the audience's funny bone.Cohn demonstrated knowledge of the state-mandated learning goals and testing, and stressed his experience in economics and financing. He described himself as a fiscal conservative, who would seek business partnerships to improve technology education if the district can't afford more computers.Diane Watson asked how he would deal with the ever-changing school board when the honeymoon is over.Cohn pointed to his business experience in working with people, his job responsibilities, and his civic volunteer activities in Kirkland as examples of how he can work with groups as a leader. I can be adamant about things critical to success, he said. If I don't do a good job then I probably won't be here very long. Getting along with the board, he said, is critical to smooth sailing -- it's a top priority for me.All three candidates were asked about the four period day at the high school, but Cohn, like the others, wasn't familiar enough to respond specifically. He did, however, agree with one critical comment from the audience. The four period day is not for homework in class, he said.As superintendent, he and the principals would set up staff development and expectations, but he supports homeschoolers and various approaches to education. Kids learn different ways and they have different strengths.Cowan hopes he's a good matchDr. Greg L. CowanEducationDoctorate in Education, Educational Leadership, Seattle University, 1993.Master's in Education, Educational Administration, WWU, Bellingham, 1977.Bachelor of Arts, Education (math major, economics minor), WWU, 1972.Superintendent's Certificate, Seattle University, 1993.Last five jobsAssistant superintendent/administrator for planning, operations, and school administration, Bellingham School District, 1992-present.Administrative assistant to the superintendent, Bellingham School District, 1988-92.Acting personnel administrator, Bellingham School District, 1988.Middle school teacher/vice principal/principal, Bellingham School District, 1977-88.Teacher/coach/athletic director, Nooksack Valley School District, 1972-79.Greg Cowan didn't ask for the job, he just wished the South Whidbey public well in finding the right person to be their next superintendent of schools.Find someone who fits the district, he said. It's really important that it be a good match . . . more power to you.Obviously, Cowan hopes that he is the best match for South Whidbey from among the three finalists for the job. For someone who started as a math and social studies teacher 28 years ago, a superintendency would cap a long career in education. But he didn't express it as a career-ending move. I'm still young! he exclaimed to the crowd of about 60 Wednesday night. While he could retire in two years, he said he has no intention of doing so.Cowan is presently assistant superintendent of administration and planning in the large Bellingham School District. He's done almost everything in public education, from teacher to coach and athletic director to assistant principal and principal, all in Whatcom County schools.Demonstrating a fondness for technology, which he called a tool of instruction, Cowan presented a 12-minute talk on improving student learning by using the Powerpoint computer projection program. He said a school district needs a good strategic plan, such as the one South Whidbey has already produced. It drives the goals, he said. To improve student learning you have to provide programs to exceed the standards . . . emphasis in reading and math in the early years is critical.He distributed a handout to accompany his lecture on student learning, then stepped down from the front of the room to mingle with the crowd and answer questions. Like the other candidates, this was where he was able to relax, trade quips with the audience and address a myriad of educational issues.He disagreed with David Edgley that something had gone wrong with education in recent years, and attributed education reform efforts to changing times. What we need now is different, he said. We're moving achievement to a higher level.Another audience member complained that some teachers are ineffective, as demonstrated by below-standard state test scores.Teachers are teaching, countered Cowan. But he favors more review of their effectiveness. They need continuous checks along the way, but not in a 'catch'em' kind of way, he said. It can't be separated. Learning is teaching.A woman who volunteers in the school said some fifth graders read at the first grade level. They can't spell and they can't read, she said. What about retraining and teacher evaluation?Again, Cowan said teacher evaluation is critical, and he enlarged upon that to include students. You need to meet a minimal standard or else you don't go on, he said. But rather than flunking kids, he said, they should be given the help they need early in their education. There should be a system in place to catch that early on, in K, 1 and 2, he said, referring to grade levels.Cowan described himself as a staunch supporter of public education, and didn't seem as enthusiastic about homeschooling as the other candidates. While favoring different things for different kids, he said he would prefer that parents feel comfortable sending their kids to public schools. I support education -- public education, he said.In a rather lengthy exchange on special education students, a parent complained that at Langley Middle School they're almost treated as lepers as they are labeled special education.While careful not to comment on the local situation, Cowan described a more mainstream approach at the middle schools he presently oversees. At times, a second teacher is placed in the classroom. That's as inclusive as you can get, he said."