New Leaders Face First Test

ADVERSARIES in a contract dispute that has delayed the opening of Federal Way schools are two people new in their jobs but tough-minded about their tasks: district Superintendent Tom Vander Ark and teachers-union President Danny Leaverton. Here is a brief look at them: ----------------------------------------------------------------- Leaders of the Federal Way Education Association and its parent, the Washington Education Association, were skeptical about the School Board's decision last month to hire management consultant Vander Ark to run the state's seventh-largest school district.

So when 1,050 teachers went on strike just five days after he started his job, it wasn't surprising he wondered whether the strike had something to do with the decision to hire him.

"It's hard to say," he said yesterday. "I'm scratching my head, though."

As the first executive to move directly from the corporate boardroom to the boardroom of a major school district in Washington, Vander Ark is an educational guinea pig whose fate will be studied closely by school boards and teachers-union locals in other districts.

The teachers' strike has caused a rocky start.

As sales and marketing director for telecommunications firm Cap Gemini America and as vice president of PACE Membership Warehouse, the 35-year-old whiz kid hadn't worked in the glare of publicity customary for school administrators.

But in the face of what may be the most trying experience a superintendent is likely to go through, he has kept his cool.

He won points with admirers and skeptics alike by making two trips from Denver to Federal Way even before he took office to meet with Leaverton, head of the Federal Way Education Association, in a search for common ground.

And, as teachers gathered Monday night to vote on the School Board's contract offer, Vander Ark was there smiling and shaking hands and passing out leaflets explaining the board's position.

Four of the five board members were there with him. "He has us working hard," said board member Ann Murphy, an enthusiastic supporter of the new superintendent.

Vander Ark has used some tough talk this week, blasting the union for calling a strike just 10 hours before classes were to start. He said teachers' $1.3 million proposal to hire 30 physical-education teachers is "completely irresponsible" at a time when academic test scores are falling and state financing is in question.

A metallurgical engineer turned executive, Vander Ark has been through delicate negotiations before. At PACE Membership Warehouse, he helped engineer the takeover of competitor PriceSavers.

Vander Ark lives with his wife, Karen, and daughters, Caroline and Katherine, who will attend Federal Way schools when they reopen.

Leaverton said yesterday that the teachers strike was simply the result of contract issues, not an attempt by the union to discredit the School Board's choice of Vander Ark as superintendent.

"We're talking about 20 years of problems here that he just walked in on," she said. "This is not him. He's not the issue."

She called him "an earnest young man" with lots to learn about the education business.

But whatever the union's intention, board member Murphy said, the strike is "definitely a message" to other school boards that may consider hiring non-educators.

A tradition in teaching

Dannielle "Danny" Leaverton has spent nearly half her life as a student or a teacher in Federal Way schools.

Her family's association with the district goes back even longer - more than half a century - to when her grandfather Art Cruse co-founded the district. A 1964 graduate of Federal Way High School, she has taught for the past six years at Lakeland Elementary, the same elementary school she attended as a child.

Leaverton, 47, gained a reputation at Lakeland for hard work, sometimes coming to school on Sundays to prepare for classes, recalled Madelyn Grayson, who will take over her fifth- and sixth-grade combination when schools open.

Leaverton has been on leave since July, when she became president of the Federal Way teachers union. On Monday night, the union members who put her in office voted to strike.

"My grandfather started this school district, and I'm tired of apologizing for teaching," she said. "I go to classes with teachers from other districts, and they ask where I teach, and I tell them, and they say, `I'm sorry.' "

Teachers want the district to hire physical-education teachers in elementary schools, pay extra for teaching overcrowded classes, pay for more training days and offer an additional paid day of personal leave.

As a single mother, Leaverton raised two daughters who graduated from Auburn High School. She lives in the Auburn district, two blocks from the Federal Way district.

Despite her differences with the Federal Way district, she doesn't discourage people from sending their children to schools there. She urged her brother to send his daughter to Federal Way schools.

Leaverton has a way with words that force even her adversaries to smile. "I have a critter up at the junior high," she says of her niece. When Vander Ark flew to Federal Way to talk to her last month, Leaverton agreed to drop union demands on special education and class size - "not gnat's-eyelash issues but big issues."

So far, she and the union have held their ground on other issues.

But there is at least one hope she shares with Vander Ark: that the strike will end promptly.