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Leaving behind a lasting legacy

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SNOQUALMIE - Rich McCullough always thought he had the best job in the world, but it took a job offer for more money and prestige to bring the fact home.

Eight years ago, McCullough was having breakfast at the Salish Lodge & Spa with a recruiter who had been hired to fill the superintendent slot at a large school district in Washington state. McCullough had been the superintendent of the Snoqualmie Valley School District for years and had started to receive offers from other districts in and out of the state.

All the numbers being offered summed up what would be a clear career leap for McCullough. The district was bigger and the salary was almost double. Moreover, the recruiter told McCullough that he was better qualified than any of the other candidates.

Something didn't add up, however, and McCullough found himself telling the recruiter that he already had a great job.

"He was a little baffled," McCullough said.

McCullough stayed and continued to lead the Snoqualmie Valley School District through a few more years of growth, new schools and levy passages.

This time, however, he is leaving for good.

On July 1, McCullough will step down from his post and make way for Joel Aune, district superintendent from Colfax who was approved by the district's board of directors for the position earlier this year.

McCullough will not be leaving education. He will be teaching at Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham. It won't be the first time McCullough has been in front of college students. When he worked in Oregon as a superintendent, McCullough taught classes at the University of Oregon. When he came to Washington, he was involved in programs at Seattle University, University of Washington and WWU.

Last year, WWU started an education superintendent program. McCullough will be coming on board in the program's second year this fall. McCullough will also be teaching in the WWU program for school principals.

The first people McCullough compliments for his success in the district is the school board. McCullough said the board, despite differing opinions, has been efficient and cordial. Many of the faces have remained the same. Before Dave Reed left the board last year, the combined years of service of all board members surpassed any other in the state. Rick Krona, who swore McCullough in 17 years ago, still sits on the board.

New faces are coming to the board, though. Kim Horn, who has children in the district, replaced Reed, and Becky Jorgensen said she will not run again this fall. McCullough said he is happy for the future prospects of the board as more parents become involved.

"Having a stable community and a stable board has been a great strength for us," McCullough said.

Three years ago, McCullough said he first thought of retiring when the 2004-2005 school year was over. By then he thought, the needed bonds would be passed and the district would be between levy cycles. The bonds would be paying for a new elementary school (Cascade View in Snoqualmie) and a new middle school in North Bend (due in 2008). McCullough let the school board know his thoughts and the board asked McCullough to reconsider his decision, year after year. After a family vacation last summer, though, McCullough decided it was time to leave and announced his decision last September at a district breakfast. While he has had a good run as superintendent, McCullough said it is time for new ideas and new blood.

"I think they got the best person they ever could have gotten," McCullough said. "Change is good for people and for organizations. Joel is going to take the district to the next level."

McCullough was hesitant to predict the future of the school district since three board positions are up for election this fall and a new superintendent will be coming in, but he did say a new long-term plan will have to be studied. McCullough believes the age of the one, big high school is over and that children will end up going to smaller, more specialized schools or academies that offer more vocational options. Trends like this can be seen in programs such as Running Start, where students leave the high-school campus to further their education.

The idea has its root in what has been one of McCullough's strengths, and what has also nagged at him his entire educational career - the realization that not enough students are being reached. McCullough can't think back to many bad days as a superintendent, but he can think back to seeing the same traps and problems snare students over and over.

"[I have a need] to see everyone's needs met," McCullough said. "I know there is no perfection you achieve, but I wish my batting average had been higher with that type of kid.

"[We have had some success with those kids] around the margin, but we have had no big breakthroughs. We still have the drop outs. We still have the disconnected youth in our community. We need to keep working at it. It is not acceptable. It doesn't have to be."

That attitude doesn't surprise Dave Humphrey, principal of Mount Si High School. Humphrey was hired by McCullough to be principal of Mount Si in 1990, and said he has often seen McCullough take time with students that many would have given up on.

McCullough said he never gave up hope on students and always believed there was a way to reach each of them.

The district has been good to he and his family, with both of McCullough's boys graduating from Mount Si High School. Kevin (class of 1998) just finished journalism graduate school and will be starting an internship at the Los Angeles Times this summer. Luke (class of 1994) has a wife and a child and is a software architect at Microsoft.

McCullough's wife, Rissa McCullough Wabaunse, works at the Northwest Indian College near Bellingham, so the family will be relocating. He has spent many nights away from his family so McCullough will be looking forward to a more consolidated home life.

The district was looking forward to a big send-off for McCullough, with a huge party planned at the TPC Golf Club in Snoqualmie. McCullough had a better idea. He moved the reception to the commons at Mount Si High School and will have the school's culinary students make the food. Nothing too formal, everyone can be involved and all are welcome.

"It would be more my style," McCullough said.

* A reception for Dr. Rich McCullough will be held at Mount Si High School from 4-7 p.m. Saturday, June 11, in the Mount Si High School commons area at 8651 Meadowbrook Way S.E., Snoqualmie. For information, call the administration office at (425) 831-8000.

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