Fed. Way Schools Turn To Business -- Corporate Executive New Superintendent

Seeking to bring business know-how into public education, the Federal Way School Board yesterday hired a corporate executive to manage Washington's seventh-largest school district.

Thomas Vander Ark's selection as superintendent puts Federal Way among a small number of school systems that have turned to the corporate world for management expertise.

Several districts in other parts of the country have hired companies to manage schools, but board members said they were unaware of any other large district in the Western U.S. to choose in recent years a non-educator as superintendent.

The board passed over two career educators to offer a three-year contract to Vander Ark, 35, marketing director of Cap Gemini America, a telecommunications firm.

"I'm sure there are a lot of other boards looking at us to see how this works out," said Board President Orlando Trier. "I'm confident it will work out great, or I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing."

Vander Ark's appointment was hailed by Lloyd Gardner, organizer of a citizens group seeking a $10 million cut in the district budget. "I wanted to get somebody who was really an expert on finances in a big business," he said. "The school district is a big business."

Board member Helen Pepper's refusal to support Vander Ark's appointment reflected the strong feelings on both sides.

"It is very difficult for me to step out into the unknown in hiring someone without the traditional experiences that I feel are necessary to be the leader of a public-school district," Pepper said.

Members of the teachers union also were concerned about Vander Ark's appointment. "I think it's a shock to the community," said Lee Ann Prielipp, a Federal Way teacher since 1966 and vice president of the Washington Education Association. "It was to me personally and especially to the people who are working in the district. I think the district is taking a chance."

Vander Ark and his wife, Karen, were present when the board voted 4-1 to hire him, effective Sept. 1. He will be paid $112,000 in his first year to manage a district with a $109 million budget, 32 schools and nearly 20,000 students.

He will succeed Richard Harris, who retired at the end of June to become superintendent in Post Falls, Idaho. Harris' annual salary was $115,000.

Vander Ark said he would spend his first months in the new job "listening and learning."

"I'm not here to make sweeping, broad changes. I'm here to try to find out what's working and to add value where I can," he said.

Board members said they chose Vander Ark because of his personal skills rather than his private-sector background. "He's just one impressive individual," Ann Murphy said.

Since last year, Vander Ark has been an executive of Cap Gemini America, the Denver-based U.S. division of a $2 billion French firm. From 1987 to 1993, he was a financial planner and vice president of $5 billion PACE Membership Warehouse.

Although he has no formal training in education and has never worked for a public-school system, Vander Ark has taught as an adjunct professor at two Colorado universities.

He holds a bachelor's degree in mineral engineering and a master's in business administration. Vander Ark's two daughters, Caroline, 9, and Katherine, 5, will attend Federal Way schools this fall.

John Fotheringham, director of the Washington Association of School Administrators, said it is unusual but not unprecedented for a school district to hire a business executive.

Barry McCombs, superintendent of the 2,000-student Omak district, and former South Kitsap and Issaquah superintendent James Swick had business backgrounds, he said.

Fotheringham said Vander Ark's management experience will be an asset, his lack of educational training a liability.