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January 29, 2003

Opinion - State Deaf chief exits with pride

From:, WA - 29 Jan 2003

Wednesday, January 29, 2003
Tom Koenninger, editor emeritus of The Columbian.
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Leonard Aron leaves more baffled than bitter after 41/2 years as superintendent of the Washington School for the Deaf in Vancouver.

He resigned, effective Feb. 15, after the school's board of trustees sent a letter to Gov. Gary Locke indicating its members had no confidence in his continuing. The same letter recommended he be removed from the job.

"I tried to be a good servant of the state and work with all the parties kids, parents and staff," Aron told me last week. "This is a good organization, and we probably have the safest public school in the state of Washington."

But it was not enough.

"I find myself a successful school leader who has had good relations with the (school) board," he said. "We have gone through changes and pressures. Suddenly, I am sitting in front of a board that is communicating a vote of no confidence. I expected them to be behind me. I expected support."

Still, Aron said, he's not bitter or angry at the board. "They needed a hired gun to come in 1998 and clean the place up," he said, "and I've done that."

Safety and security measures and policies have been put in place, and the curriculum has been improved. A reading program for deaf students produced positive results.

"People from other states have visited us to look at the good things we have done," Aron said.

He isn't as mellow toward the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which, after an eight-month investigation, found sex abuse cases dating back 50 years. The newspaper focused more on problems, not remedial actions, he said, and P-I reporters told him, "We know the story. You fill in the facts."

Aron's departure comes after more than three years of emotional, volatile charges, countercharges and lawsuits alleging sexual abuse of students on the residential campus.

His forced resignation, Aron reasons, is becoming all too common among CEOs and school administrators. He recalled a statistic indicating the average tenure of a public school superintendent is 2.1 years. What more is expected of leaders who are asked to come in, drive change and be accountable, he wonders?

Aron likens his situation to that of Tana Hasart, former president of Clark College.

Hasart resigned last year following a controversy between the college and its foundation. She didn't see it coming in her case, and Aron didn't in his, he said.

Making progress

Still, Aron said, he is proud of what he has accomplished at the school and proud of its staff and students.

"I told the governor, this school is a very safe school that is making progress. I believe in the school." He said he leaves the school better than he found it. "That's my spirit. Whoever walks into this will say, 'Whoa, somebody did a nice job.'"

Aron said he has received love and support from his wife, Brenda, a sign-language teacher at Battle Ground, and daughters Marisa and Shauna. "They have said we'll get through this as a family." Friends "more than we thought we had" have offered comfort as well. One lesson he's learned, he said, is to take better care of himself, because no one else will: "A leader generally focuses 90 percent on the organization and 10 percent on himself."

Of his own future, Aron said he is reconnecting with the education community in a job search.

"I enjoy the challenge of working with at-risk youngsters and as a counselor," he said.

The future of the school is less certain. Established in 1886, it is the only one of its kind in the state. Enrollment has declined, and residency may not justify the risk. There are signs of disenchantment among state legislators.

Too many cooks spoil the broth. Too many people have verbally battered the school and tried to tell it what to do. Unless its tumultuous past subsides, Washington School for the Deaf remains in peril no matter who leads it.

Copyright © 2003 by The Columbian Publishing Co.