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Thursday, May 6, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Vander Ark's Exit No Surprise

Seattle Times South Bureau

SUPPORTERS SAY the reform-minded superintendent's move was inevitable, given his successes. Critics say he's ducking fire.

Federal Way schools Superintendent Tom Vander Ark, the state's first nontraditional superintendent and a champion of aggressive education reforms, said it was a tough decision to return to the private sector.

"It's been three months of a lot of prayer and reflection," he said.

But the news this week that Vander Ark will join the Gates Learning Foundation was no surprise to those who said his talents would make him a target for recruitment.

"I'm surprised we were able to hold on to him as long as we have," School Board President Holly Isaman said.

Vander Ark will join the Gates foundation in July as executive director of the Gates Education Initiative, a new K-12 enterprise.

"It's a job I couldn't even have imagined, given the chance," he said.

He dismissed widely circulated rumors that he had been "shopping around."

But many in Federal Way, the state's seventh-largest district, say such moves are seldom a surprise. Vander Ark had been with the district five years, outlasting the average superintendent duration of three years.

"Any time there's a change, there's shock," said Linda McInturff, administrator of the district's growing Internet Academy. "But I think we all knew at some time that would occur."

Those critical of Vander Ark note he is leaving just as he faces considerable anger over two controversial plans.

Last fall teachers and residents blocked his proposal to create a small, career-focused high school as part of a $52 million construction bond. Instead, opponents pushed to build a traditional high school, which will be put to voters May 18 as part of a $83 million bond measure.

And in recent weeks, the district has been under fire for changing elementary report cards from letter to number grades. A parent-teacher committee is working to reverse the grading system for next year.

Vander Ark said he had intended to stay in the district another five years to follow through on his initiatives, but that the potential with the foundation was too great to resist.

"I was certainly not looking for anything new," he said. "It's been the most challenging thing that I've ever tried to do, but it's also been the most rewarding."

He admits the learning curve as superintendent was steeper than he had expected.

"It's extraordinarily difficult to change anything in public education," he said.

Assistant Superintendent Tom Murphy will serve as interim schools chief through the summer. Next week, the School Board will interview consultants to conduct a search for Vander Ark's replacement.

School officials said the next superintendent's salary will not automatically be the same as Vander Ark's, who was paid $122,673. But some board members say they again want a leader who can bring business skills to the growing district.

Vander Ark, 39, replaced retiring Superintendent Dick Harris in 1994. He was the first school chief in Washington, and one of the first in the nation, to be hired directly from the business world.

The School Board dubbed his hire "an experiment."

Vander Ark earned a master's degree in business management and quickly rose through the management ranks at the retail cooperative Pace Membership Warehouse in Colorado.

In 1993 he went to Cap Gemini America, an information-consulting firm, as director of marketing development. A headhunter for Federal Way spotted him in Denver, teaching university classes and working with a nonprofit public-education coalition.

In his first three years at Federal Way, Vander Ark reduced the administration and trimmed millions from the budget. He shifted principals around and moved some of them out of schools and into central administration. He pushed tougher graduation requirements, more emphasis on science and math, and a performance-based pay proposal for dozens of district employees.

He has been praised for raising standardized test scores, generating community support and improving computer access for students and staff.

"He's certainly stayed out ahead of the pack, and that has been a plus for us," said Jan Bieber, president of the Federal Way Education Association.

Jerry Millett, principal of Decatur High School, said Vander Ark brought a rare "entrepreneurial spirit" to schools.

"If he says he's going to do something, it's kind of like a laser beam - he does it, and he does it quick and straight on," Millett said. ". . . It's a good example for our kids."

But that drive drew criticism from those who believe Vander Ark pushed reforms too fast, and failed to invite ideas from parents, teachers and community members.

School Board member Joel Marks said he admired the superintendent's dedication but said his zeal for change created stress and tension.

"I would like the new superintendent to possibly stop and smell the roses," Marks said. "I want a slower pace than what we've had - a more deliberate pace."

Vander Ark will take much of what he started in Federal Way with him. At the Gates Learning Foundation, he'll be merging business, technology and schoolchildren.

"It's an opportunity to make a difference for children nationwide, and that is something I'm really passionate about," he said.

Lisa Pemberton-Butler's phone message number is 253-946-3977. Her e-mail address is lpemberton@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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