Federal Way Pares School-Chief List To Three Finalists

FEDERAL WAY - Two school district superintendents and a businessman were named as finalists last night in the search for a new administrator of the Federal Way School District.

School Board members will fly to three cities this week for a closer look at the two women and one man who could be superintendent:

-- Margaret (Marge) Chow, superintendent of the 8,200-student Richland School District since 1986.

-- Thomas Vander Ark, sales and marketing director of the Denver-based telecommunications firm Cap Gemini America.

-- Mary Beth Wolford, superintendent of the 18,500-student Simi Valley Unified School District in California.

The School Board voted unanimously to confirm the finalists after an executive session in which they discussed seven candidates who were brought to Federal Way for interviews during the previous 10 days.

Among the candidates passed over by the board was one insider, Assistant Superintendent Sherrelle Walker.

"We're going to be traveling fast this week and making a lot of communications in these communities with the people that know these candidates," said board member Gail Pierson, who has headed the board's effort to select a new superintendent.

The School Board hopes to select a superintendent and negotiate a contract by Monday, said School Board President Orlando Trier. Board members want to have a new superintendent on duty in the 20,000-student district as soon as possible this fall.

Choosing as a finalist a business executive with no experience managing schools is a boldly unconventional move. Vander Ark's inclusion reflects the growing pressure on school boards to cut expenses and improve efficiency.

Vander Ark, an engineer and MBA, was hired by Cap Gemini America last year to create a "business transformation group." For the previous seven years, he was an executive with the $5 billion PACE Membership Warehouse chain, leading the takeover of an $850 million competitor and helping boost annual growth fourfold.

Chow, who holds a doctorate in educational leadership from Seattle University, was an assistant superintendent of the Kent School District from 1981-1986. She began her career as an elementary teacher in Seattle, where she later taught high school and worked as a principal and area administrator.

Wolford, who has an educational doctorate from the University of San Francisco, was named superintendent of the Simi Valley district last year. She previously was the district's deputy and assistant superintendent and was superintendent of the smaller Byron Union district in Contra Cost County. She began her career as a special education teacher in 1969.

Former School Board member Effenus Henderson offered the board a piece of advice: offer the new superintendent a high enough salary to attract the best. "If you're looking at the leaders and getting the best-quality talent, you're going to get what you pay for," he said.

The School Board began its recruiting campaign when longtime superintendent Richard Harris announced he was retiring at the end of June to move to a smaller district in Idaho.

Eliminated yesterday in addition to Walker were Prince William County, Va., area associate superintendent Hugh Burkett; Seattle School District chief financial officer Lawrence Davenport, and Rockwell, Mo., school superintendent Dennis Peterson.