Tolley named Northshore School District Superintendent

by Kevin Opsahl |
Michael Tolley. Photo provided by Northshore School District. Michael Tolley. Photo provided by Northshore School District.

True to form, Northshore School District Interim Superintendent Michael Tolley was in his office this past Friday editing communications on NSD’s budget shortfall while the school board was deliberating over who the next person to lead the district should be.

Tolley was one of three finalists for the position, which also included superintendents from Arkansas and Michigan. They all participated in a public town hall meeting and interviews with the board before it huddled in a closed session on March 17.

“Either way, no matter what the decision might have turned out to be, I’m interim superintendent through the end of June,” Tolley said. “I have to deliver on a balanced budget.”

But that Friday evening, Tolley’s phone started ringing with texts of “Congratulations!” and that’s how he learned he would be the next superintendent.

“I’m doing the job now,” Tolley said. “So, yes, it sunk in, and I’m excited and committed and looking forward to continuing.”

Tolley is slated to become superintendent July 1, subject to the successful completion of contract negotiations, according to a news release.

In an interview, Tolley said his top three priorities are balancing the district's budget, fulfilling a five-year strategic plan and boosting achievement in math among NSD students.

Tolley recently posted an online message to NSD constituents regarding the budget, in which he wrote that officials identified “additional expenditures” that grew the projected 2023-24 shortfall from an estimated $10-12 million to $21-22 million. Those expenditures include certificated staff, administrators, contractual commitments, and additional student services. NSD, like all districts in Washington, is required by law to submit a balanced budget.

“Right now, it’s critically important that we produce a balanced budget for the end of this school year,” Tolley said in an interview.

The school board met last week to hold a study session on the budget. Constituent meetings on the matter will be held March 22, 27 and April 5.

While he works to produce a balanced budget, Tolley is also focused on the 2022-27 strategic plan, which was extended from the previous five years. The current plan focuses on four “blocks” — equitable access, a safe climate/strong constituent relations, staff support and data-informed decision-making. Within the strategic plan are numerous goals and measures to achieve them.

“Realistically, to try to do all of those things at one time — yes, we could do parts of everything, but we need to focus,” Tolley said. “So, (in the) current year, we’re focused on … addressing racial and educational justice for all of our students. Within that, we are implementing our new set of instructional materials.”

According to the district’s website, Racial and Educational Justice includes students and instructors working with indigenous peoples from the Coast Salish lands, where NDS operates; students familiarizing themselves with a land acknowledgement statement; and using curriculum materials related to Black Lives Matter and the 2023 “Student Justice Conference,” slated for March 24.

In terms of Math, Tolley is concerned many students have fallen behind in learning math, an issue exacerbated by the pandemic.

“We have to have a really focused effort in addressing mathematics instruction within our schools, beginning at the elementary level,” Tolley said.

Next school year, he’d like the district to organize a “comprehensive mathematics initiative,” which could include assessments to look at student progress.

“Ultimately, we’ll probably take a look at a new set of instructional materials for elementary math,” Tolley said. “We’re not there yet, but we do need to put together a comprehensive math initiative for schools district wide. We’ll develop that this spring.”

During the school board meeting in which Tolley was selected as the next superintendent, Board member Sandy Hayes noted Tolley comes into the superintendent position at an “interesting point in the timeline of public education.” She described Tolley as someone who is “forward-thinking” and “courageous” to point out ways education can approve.

“It’s an important aspect that we need going forward,” Hayes said.

Numerous parents who watched the public portion of the board's Friday meeting commented that they believed Tolley was the right choice for superintendent and praised the district for a transparent search process.

Those parents include Stephanie Powell, a parent of a Hollywood Hills Elementary School third-grader in the sensory program. Powell thought Tolley explained the nuances of special education during a town hall better than the other superintendent finalists.

“Those other candidates were somewhat incoherent when asked about neurodiversity. It made me nervous,” Powell wrote. “Mr. Tolley has been directly engaged with the special education programs in NSD since he arrived here.”

Powell met Tolley when he visited the elementary school’s parent teacher association after his appointment to the superintendent position.

“I have no doubt he will be a very visible, present leader,” Powell wrote.