FEDERAL WAY - What was once unthinkable to educators - and still makes many uneasy - could happen here.
The 20,000-student Federal Way School District may become the first major district in Washington to hire a non-educator to run its schools.
School Board members were in Denver yesterday gathering information about Thomas Vander Ark, a corporate-management consultant who is one of three finalists competing to become school superintendent.
Vander Ark, sales and marketing director of Denver-based telecommunications firm Cap Gemini America, is a mineral engineer with a master's degree in business administration. Previously, as vice president of the $5 billion PACE Membership Warehouse corporation, he helped engineer the takeover of $850 million competitor PriceSavers.
The other candidates are career educators: Richland Superintendent Margaret "Marge" Chow and Simi Valley, Calif., Superintendent Mary Beth Wolford.
School Board members visited Simi Valley on Wednesday and were in Richland today.
If Las Vegas oddsmakers were taking bets on the candidates, they probably wouldn't consider outsider Vander Ark the front-runner.
But his inclusion among the finalists - from a list of 200 who expressed interest in the job - illustrates the growing willingness of school boards to turn to the corporate world for management expertise.
Pressure for change has come from fiscal conservatives who argue that tax dollars are wasted by teachers-turned-administrators who don't know how to control school budgets as large as $313 million in Seattle.
"I would like to see them put that businessman in as superintendent and see what he can do," said Paul Willoughby, a Highline district taxpayer who unsuccessfully urged his school board to hire a corporate manager earlier this year - and who now is prodding Federal Way to take that step.
"Professional educators really don't have the skills to run large corporations."
Others think, however, that business people may lack the knowledge of what enables children to learn.
"We have reservations with the gentleman who was in outside business, not because we didn't think he was a responsible, educated human being but just because there would be a substantial lag time that the other two wouldn't face," said Danny Leaverton, president of the Federal Way Education Association, which represents 1,000 teachers and other professional employees.
"Education, like any other business, is complicated."
The teachers union has given strong endorsements to Chow and Wolford.
School Board members plan to meet in executive session tomorrow to choose a superintendent. The decision will be announced after a contract is negotiated, probably sometime next week.
Nationally, corporations have made strong inroads in winning contracts to manage schools in recent months. The Edison Project, backed by Whittle Communications CEO Christopher Whittle, has signed contracts to operate three schools in Massachusetts and is negotiating contracts in four other states.
As early as next week, substantial control of public schools in Hartford, Conn., could be turned over to another firm, Education Alternatives Inc. It would be the first time a profit-making business has run a school district in the U.S.
School boards have had less success recruiting business executives as superintendents.
The Seattle School Board, faced with a large deficit in the 1970s, persuaded the Legislature to change the law so it could hire a superintendent with experience as a corporate, municipal or hospital administrator. The old law required teaching experience.
"They soon found that their salaries didn't compete with the vice president of a corporation, so they didn't even get any nibbles. . . . They ended up with me," recalled David Moberly, a career educator who became state deputy superintendent of public instruction after retiring as Seattle's top administrator.
Although Vander Ark could make more money in business, he said pay is "less important to me than finding an opportunity to work with people who are really excited about making a difference for children."
He is not without educational experience. He has taught some college-level classes and helped modernize the University of Denver's MBA curriculum.
The skills he and other executives have honed in the business world are translatable to school districts, Vander Ark said. "Financing a school district or financing a business is really having a story to tell: a credible plan for where you want to go and results quarter by quarter, semester by semester, that demonstrate delivery credibility."
Leaverton, the teachers' representative, remained a skeptic. "I don't think that finance is all of it.
"Education is much bigger than that. That's one piece and a substantial piece, but there is much more to it than that."