On July 19, Karst Brandsma was named interim superintendent of the South Kitsap School District. Brandsma succeeds Dr. Michelle Reid, who accepted the superintendent position for the Northshore School District in Bothell.
Brandsma has worked in education since 1976, including serving as interim superintendent for Oak Harbor, Mount Baker and Everett Public Schools.Port Orchard Independent education reporter Sara Miller sat down with Brandsma and asked the new superintendent some questions prior to the start of his first day in the office.
Q: What are your initial thoughts about the state of the district coming in as interim superintendent?
A: In the short time I’ve been here, it’s really impressed me. It’s really moving forward in a lot of directions. Obviously, it has, from the district standpoint, areas that need attention. The state legislature is reporting to the Supreme Court on how they’re going to deal with the McCleary decision.
And part of that, obviously, has to do with what’s going to happen with the state law that allows districts to have a little extra revenue from a levy. So we’ll have to work through that this year because for a district our size, that could be a financial hit. We’ll have to make sure we watch that. (Of projects) that are state of the art, we’ve got the International Baccalaureate that’s being implemented. I’m a firm believer in that kids rise to the level that they are challenged. And so the more challenging options you have for kids, I think they tend to rise to the top.
So getting kids college- and career-ready are all [efforts] I would support, whether it’s additional [advanced placement] classes or having opportunities for kids to do high-level math as early as possible. I’m also for trying to find ways to successfully support them so that they can continue on track to graduate on time.
I know that the district has a lot of initiatives that have been in place, and I think my role would probably be to find a way to support those and keep them moving forward. I know that financially, too, we need to find a way to support the transition from junior-high schools to middle schools, and also looking at supporting ninth-graders into the 9-12 structure.
You know, South Kitsap is kind of behind most communities as far as adopting a middle school-level philosophy and program. And I think that process has started but it’s going to require some additional help and resources in order to make sure that safety nets are in place to help kids.
Q. What is something you think needs improving in the South Kitsap School District?
A. Oh, it might be too early to ask me that. Maybe you should ask me in sixth months or so. What I have found in the short time I’ve been here is people are really positive and upbeat, and you can tell right away that it’s a great place and community to send your kids to.
The school staff is very supportive and they enjoy their work. And from what I can tell, they seem to do it very well.
Q. How do you plan to help ease the transition to middle schools in the next year?
A. I’m anxious to see where they’re at and what our secondary schools need for support to make sure they’re successful. I think the structure they’re looking at has been tested over time.
I’d be surprised if there are more than a small handful of school districts in the state of Washington that are under our current structure. I think South Kitsap is catching up with the times. I know back in the late ‘80s, I was in the Tacoma School District when we went to the four-year high school and middle school [concept].
The idea is to find ways that kids can engage at the mid-level and be supported and find success. And the idea is to get as many kids to find success academically, socially and emotionally. I think South Kitsap has always tried to educate the whole child. And this is another way that they can continue to do that.
Q. What will be your first priority as interim superintendent?
A. Well, I think the first priority besides hitting the ground running is to just get a chance to meet folks. I plan on meeting with every administrator one-on-one. I would give them a homework assignment before we met, but want to know what it is they’re doing that I can support.
What do they think are the real strengths of the district, what do we need to continue moving forward. And what are the areas that they feel need to be addressed. I’m smart enough to know that you have to ask, and it takes a while. You can’t be here two days and just figure it out.
Q. What is the state of plans to put a school construction bond issue before voters again next year?
A. I know the board is interested in having discussions regarding what that might look like.
I’ve only seen the information from what I’ve read from your newspaper. I know in February they were very, very close, and in April they were almost just as close but still over 59 percent. I think that has to be reviewed. Clearly, we have a levy coming up that will have to be on the February ballot, a replacement levy. That counts for 24 percent of our operating budget in the general fund.
So that replacement levy is crucial to just continuing our current programs. That will definitely be on the ballot come February. It will be a process, and that process will unwind early in the school year.
I think in a good timeline, it’ll have to be done definitely before Thanksgiving break, but it will probably be done much earlier than that. much earlier than that.
Q. What compelled you to apply to become interim superintendent?
A. South Kitsap has a great reputation. What interested me is the policy governance form of a school board. I’ve had the opportunity to work in other school districts that have had that, and I think that’s a governance model that is a well-kept secret.
If more school boards knew about it, you’d see more school districts adopting the policy governance model. The upcoming levy [also] was of interest. I have developed a skill set to help districts pass levies. And I enjoy the work. I have failed retirement miserably since 2009. Since then, I’ve [worked in] an interim role. This will be my third superintendency as interim superintendent and my fifth part of a central office team helping successful transitions of superintendents. It’s really rewarding.
The hardest part about the whole thing is having to say goodbye. My wife would tell you my first order of business is to find a house, though.
Q. How is your management style similar and different from Dr. Reid’s?
A. I would first say it may be hard shoes to fill. I’m clearly not Dr. Reid. I have kind of my own style. I have been in enough school districts with successful programs that I know what success looks like.
I look at myself as a coach and a lifelong teacher. I think it’s important that you lead from the bottom up and not the top down. I really like to listen well. I like to hear what the concerns are. I like to hear the best ideas, and then somewhere down the line, there has to be some type of decision made. Depending on what it is you’re trying to determine, it could be a collaborative decision. But if there’s a fire, we’re not going to have a committee meeting to put it out. There are different types of leadership styles needed.
Q. Do you see your job as interim superintendent is to keep the district on-course based on existing strategic planning, or do you feel comfortable to chart a new course for the district (in consultation with the board)?
A. It might be a little of both, but an interim’s job is to keep the current work moving forward.
There’s a lot of great things happening that it’s obviously a full-time job just keeping those things moving forward.
We’ll spend some time with the board as they go through what my goals will be and what I’ll be evaluated on. I’ll probably have some board study sessions on some different things, different activities and programs in the district. We’ll probably come away with a short list of things they would like to see accomplished in the short time I am here. I don’t see my role as a change-maker.
When you have a change or transition of superintendents, sometimes staff can lose focus, or take their eye off the ball. I’m hoping that I can have a calming influence and keep the real focus on educating the community’s kids. I think they’re sending us their best kids — they’re not keeping any home — and we need to continue doing a good job. And if I can have a steady hand, create some confidence and keep them focused, I think that’s a big part of it.
Q. How do you feel about the school district’s involvement with the community? Is it good or bad and how can it be improved?
A. I think it’s good but there is always room for improvement. I know from what I’ve seen so far that there’s an openness. There’s a sense of transparency. I’ve only met a few community members but they’ve had high remarks for how they felt the district [operated]. Their website is a good resource. They’re trying to do newsletters to get the word out. I think there’s an opportunity for two-way communication.
I think there’s always room for improvement, no matter how well you’re doing things. The players change, whether it’s superintendents or department heads, building principals or PTA support. Things change and you need to continue to evaluate, adapt and improve.
Q. What do you want the people of Port Orchard and the school district to know about you?
A. I value family. I’m married, have three children and I have four grandchildren — soon to be five.
And I truly believe that public education is the cornerstone of democracy. And contrary to what some people argue, I think we’re doing an outstanding job. You cannot measure success only on a state assessment or federally required assessment. There are other indicators to indicate what success looks like. And I think, ultimately, it’s people who are engaged that become good citizens and contribute to society.
Public education is actually doing pretty good work. But, getting back to my other philosophy, there’s always room for improvement.