Retiring Snoqualmie superintendent reflects on tenure

Rob Manahan announced his retirement earlier this year after being hired in 2018.

If people walked away from a conversation with Rob Manahan feeling valued and listened to, then that was the goal of the outgoing Snoqualmie Valley School District superintendent.

“I just wanted people to feel respected and loved and belonging,” Manahan said.

Manahan retired at the end of the 2020-21 school year, a decision announced earlier this year, after three years with the district and 37 years working in education. He was hired by the district in 2018, and guided the district through the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, a contentious political environment and online schooling.

June 22 was the superintendent’s last day, and the Snoqualmie Valley Record caught up with Manahan to talk about his career and retirement. Students had graduated the week before.

“It has been really pleasing to see 456 kids graduate from our high school, and so many of them going on to some sort of higher education opportunity, others moving right into internships or jobs,” Manahan said of Mount Si High graduates. “I was just happy to see so many kids go through our graduation ceremony.”

Two Rivers High School also saw all seven seniors graduate. Manahan said between the two high schools, he was happy to see the efforts of the students and staff pay off.

While he said it’s difficult to end his tenure with the district after only three years, Manahan said it was the right decision. He cited health concerns that will eventually impact his quality of life, and as he advocates for his staff to strike a healthy balance between work and life, he decided to follow his own advise.

“This is a decision that really is about family and quality of life post-work,” he said.

Even though he is retiring, Manahan is optimistic about where the district is headed, and proud of the work he and staff across the district were able to complete.

Before the pandemic began, staff was working on addressing academic gaps and implementing support systems for students. As students return to in-person learning this fall, that work is set to pay off and help navigate learning loss or social and emotional issues they may be experiencing.

“I think we can pick that up right away in the fall,” Manahan said. “I don’t think there will be much of a gap.”

The pandemic had its own set of challenges and rewards. One of the most difficult things for school district staff was dealing with changing guidance on best practices in addition to shutting down abruptly during the spring of 2020.

“I think we did the very best that we could, and I know that wasn’t the best for some families, but I am so impressed with the way we turned on a dime to get things done for the last three and a half months of school,” Manahan said of the last months of the 2019-20 school year.

Throughout the last school year, there have been ongoing discussions both in the district and community about when and how to reopen. Manahan said some people thought schools shouldn’t have closed, others felt schools should continue to remain closed.

For their part, the district decided to listen to guidance from Public Health — Seattle and King County on when and how to welcome students back into the classroom, the goal that the district had.

Manahan said staff measured out each classroom several times, trying to plan out how many students they could safely fit in each room, depending on what distancing guidelines were issued. While necessary, it sucked up a lot of time and led to frustration.

“We’re here to educate, not measure classrooms all the time,” Manahan said.

There were high points during Manahan’s tenure too. One of the defining projects he led was creating school improvement plans that he described as laser-focused on improving students academically, socially and emotionally. It’s the plan that will be put into action when students return in the fall.

He also praised school district staff, from teachers and administration to custodians and bus drivers.

“It has not been easy,” Manahan said. “It’s been a challenge, but they have risen to the challenge and they have stepped forward.”

Looking back at nearly four decades as an educator, it was the people he worked with that stand out the most.

“My colleagues around me and people I work with create miracles and change the world every day,” he said. “Education is the tool that breaks down barriers — barriers of poverty, barriers of intolerance, barriers of thinking that can block a person’s success in life.”

As for what comes next, Manahan and his wife have a house in Arizona and plan to spend time both there and in Washington. With grandchildren in the Snoqualmie Valley School District and in Gig Harbor, they’ll be back for visits, and students may find their old superintendent filling in as a substitute teacher now and then.

There’s also the usual vacation plans like traveling and playing golf and having some quiet time away from the pressures of an administration role.

But even through difficult times, Manahan said he’s grateful for the chance to meet and talk with the people he served, even those who disagreed

“It has absolutely been an honor to serve not only this community, but the other communities I’ve been able to serve in,” Manahan said. “… I can’t thank enough the people, the colleagues, the individuals I’ve come in contact with.”

Manahan was named superintendent of the Snoqualmie Valley School District in May 2018. Before that, he served as superintendent at Peninsula School District in Gig Harbor for two years, and in the same role at Lake Chelan School District for six years before that. He’s also worked for the Lake Stevens School District, Sunnycrest Elementary School, Mount Pilchuck Elementary and Lake Stevens Middle School. He also taught on the Pacific Peninsula earlier in his career.

Snoqualmie Valley School District named Dr. Lance W. Gibbon as the next superintendent after a nationwide search. He will begin in his position on July 1, 2021.