BURLINGTON — When Burlington-Edison School District announced in November 2022 a search for a superintendent to replace the retiring district leader of 15 years, many community members and students saw it as an opportunity to find someone who represents the majority Latino population of the district.
But when Burlington-Edison School Board last week announced six semifinalists — five white men and a Latina woman — many parents and students felt “hurt, frustrated, shocked,” and like their engagement in the process was a “house of cards,” mother of three Guadalupe Garcia said.
The announcement spurred a change.org petition, organized by Burlington-Edison High School students, calling for “a more diverse search board and list of candidates.” As of the afternoon of March 7, 619 people had signed.
The semifinalists were interviewed over the course of the day March 4. Around 30 community members attended the interviews, providing written feedback on each candidate, said Todd Setterlund, executive director of learning and communications for the district. That afternoon, community members led a small demonstration demanding better representation and a complete redo of the search.
“There is no diversity. There is just one pattern of a group of people that are always taking the shots. There should be more people of color on that table making the decisions,” said Garcia, noting the majority Latino population of the district. “We need more representation. This is so important for my culture, for my heritage, for my children to be able to see that.”
By March 5, the board of five elected officials had whittled the candidate list to three finalists, all white men. They will interview again beginning March 7, and a decision is expected by March 10.
Despite community outcry, Setterlund said the district “feels great about the finalists,” and is looking forward to getting to know them individually.
“We interviewed six strong candidates with diverse experiences, making our decision difficult,” board President Troy Wright stated in a district release. “We appreciate the community’s involvement and ongoing feedback throughout this process.”
The monthslong recruitment and hiring effort was spearheaded by a consulting firm, Northwest Leadership Associates (NWLA), which has led superintendent searches across Whatcom and Skagit counties for years.
Through focus groups and surveys, district stakeholders said they were loud and persistent in their calls for a bilingual superintendent of color who could advocate for the 55% nonwhite student body. Of the 3,357 students enrolled in the district this year, 48.9% are Latino, according to the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Parents organized their own community meeting, hoping to reach the migrant, Spanish-speaking population who weren’t likely to know about or attend the focus group facilitated by the district, organizer Dania Jaramillo said.
The district’s messaging about the community meetings was directly translated from English to Spanish, but did little to contextualize what was actually happening for a parent unfamiliar with U.S. school systems.
“When we asked all the parents who were there who the superintendent was, nobody raised their hand,” Jaramillo said. “When we asked who knew what a superintendent was, nobody raised their hand. We had to dive into what that is for them to be able to voice their opinion.”
More than 40 families showed up, and overwhelmingly shared how they wanted a superintendent who looked, spoke and experienced like them, Jaramillo said.
Other parents who attended the community meeting spoke about racism their children endured from staff and fellow students within the district, said Mariana Carroll, a mother of three. Her children attend West View School, a dual-language, multicultural elementary school. While West View allows Carroll’s kids to celebrate and maintain their heritage, she is concerned for them as they get older.
“We wanted somebody that would know what it feels, what it means to be a Latino here in the Skagit Valley, what challenges we face every day. Someone who has experienced racism and would have a bold position against racism and would feel confident to denounce it and hold people accountable,” Carroll said.
Students and staff, too, were involved in the search, but some felt let down when they saw the list of semifinalists. GiGi Searle, a Burlington-Edison High School senior, organized the change.org petition after hearing frustration over the list of candidates from her nonwhite and white peers.
“It was really sad to see our voices kind of go unheard,” said Searle, 18, who attended every district focus group for students.
Noelle Chavez, a district employee since 2020, attended the interviews on March 4 after seeing the list of semifinalists.
Chavez said she saw determination and awareness in the candidates during the March 4 interviews, but “I think it would have been a very pivotal moment in this district’s history to actually follow through with having that representation here today, not just in voice, but in actual individuality.”
The district’s Setterlund thinks claims that the process wasn’t diverse enough are a mischaracterization. He also noted other community members were vocal in wanting a financially savvy candidate. Voters have twice rejected a bond to build a “much-needed” middle school in the district, which has only K–8 elementary schools and one high school.
NWLA sent brochures about the job to 3,500 people nationwide, including groups like the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, Setterlund said. A search committee of two NWLA consultants then began targeted recruiting “based on community feedback,” sending applications to more than 100 potential candidates, 25 of whom were people of color, said Mark Venn, one of the two NWLA recruiters.
“The board sets characteristics and qualifications, and we use that as a filter for what they said they want,” Venn said. He noted he felt the Burlington-Edison School Board did their “due diligence” in engaging with the community through every step of the process.
Nineteen people applied for the job and six were chosen as semifinalists.
Hiring a person to steer a district through financial, relational, educational and ever-changing waters is widely thought to be a board’s most critical function, said Venn, a former superintendent.
For neighboring Mount Vernon School District, the community celebrated when Superintendent Ismael Vivanco was hired in 2020, board member Wendy Ragusa said. The team of recruiters was the same — Venn and Wayne Robertson — and the process was nearly identical to Burlington-Edison’s, but Ragusa said finding someone who represented the majority Latino students was a “high priority” of the Mount Vernon board and constituents. As an added bonus, Vivanco knew the area, having grown up in the Skagit Valley, the son of a migrant family.
“You want to be with people who look like you, right? If you can make that representation happen, it’s all the more valuable in the end, those outcomes for students and staff,” said Ragusa, who noted the board received an outpouring of gratitude from the community for their choice.
Burlington-Edison parents pointed to Mount Vernon as a success story, one they wish to see in their district.
Garcia hopes whoever is hired becomes involved in the community “not just for a picture for the paper, but because they really want to.” She also hopes to eventually see more diversity in staff.
“I wish that my children could have the same opportunities, the same equality, as other children from a different ethnicity or race have,” Garcia said. “I wish as a parent, that when I walk in at the District Office, I can communicate with someone there in my own — in my first — language, español.”