Looking back at 40 years spent in education, including 32 years in Lewiston, Superintendent Bob Donaldson remembers his last as his best.
In his eight years as the district superintendent, Donaldson navigated the community approval of a $60 million bond that helped build the new high school and career and technical education building, and a reconfiguration of the schools to a K-5 elementary, a 6-8 middle and 9-12 high school.
But with just weeks left before his retirement, Donaldson said Lewiston’s handling of the 2020-2021 school year and the COVID-19 pandemic is what he’s most proud of. Lewiston schools have been open for in-person instruction since Aug. 31 and haven’t closed all school year.
“This staff and the teachers and the building administrators put in a ton of work to prepare for this year,” Donaldson said. “That’s just a reflection of our teachers and support staff making it happen.”
Once the board made the decision to start school, the most crucial part of staying open was making sure staff members, parents and students knew how important it was to follow protocols in order to keep students in the building, assistant superintendent Lance Hansen said.
“Everyone was doing what they could,” he said.
Donaldson was also happy with the district’s transparency when it came to COVID-19 numbers among student and staff members. Every morning, the district would send out the daily metrics to staff and post them where parents could find them. Donaldson said communication with the patrons of the district is something that’s always been very important to him.
This high level of communication is something Donaldson utilized when passing the district’s bond in 2017. After three previous bonds failed, the 2017 Lewiston bond passed with a 75 percent majority and was used to replace the high school that was built in 1928 and build the new CTE center. The new high school is 208,000 square feet and brings the building up to modern standards. The former high school had 14 classrooms that were 680 square feet (well below the standard high school classroom size of 850 square feet).
“It is really overwhelming just to see it,” he said. Donaldson was principal at the high school during failed bonds and said administration started from square one with the bond after he took over as superintendent.
The CTE building is 45,000 square feet and Donaldson said he’s excited for all of the new opportunities the facility can provide to students in the future.
A passion for people
Donaldson started in Lewiston in 1989 as the assistant principal of the junior high, a position he held for four years. He was then the principal of the school for 12 years before moving to the high school, where he was the principal for six years. After two years as the assistant superintendent, he took over as the district’s top administrator. He’s been superintendent for eight years. In February, he announced that the 2020-2021 school year would be his last. Hansen was offered the position of superintendent on March 8.
Describing Donaldson as “firm but compassionate,” Lewiston School Board President Brad Rice said Donaldson’s leadership abilities and ability to listen to everyone made him a strong superintendent.
It would be hard to find someone in the district who has worked more intimately with Donaldson than Hansen. Hansen was hired as Donaldson’s assistant principal at the junior high for the 2008-2009 school year and the two have been closely linked since. When Donaldson was brought up to be principal of the high school, Hansen followed as assistant principal. When Donaldson took over as superintendent, Hansen was brought up to be his assistant once more.
“Bob has a passion for people,” Hansen said. “And a tremendous ability to empathize with people in all situations. He has the ability to feel the pulse of a building that really makes him in tune with the day-to-day operations.”
Looking back on his career, Donaldson said he had no idea that he’d be in Lewiston for so long when he first arrived. He said one of his favorite parts of the job is walking into classrooms in the district and checking in on students, making sure they are learning and checking in on their social and emotional wellbeing.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “That’s what we’re all here about is the kids. That’s the most gratifying piece. Never lose track of that.”
Donaldson was born and raised outside of Pittsburgh. He got his bachelors degree from Pennsylvania State University before going to the University of Kentucky for his masters degree. He eventually received his PhD at the University of Idaho.
Donaldson became somewhat acquainted with the area when he was an instructor at Washington State University for three years, less than an hour’s drive from his current office. Donaldson said he’s always wanted to live in the west. When he was younger, he spent time working seasonally on ranches in Wyoming.
“That’s what brought me to Idaho. The whole area of Idaho and Wyoming and Montana,” he said. “My wife and I thought it was so beautiful.”
Once he retires, Donaldson said he’s going to be staying busy.
“I’m not a golfer, but I bought a new fly rod because my son took my old one,” Donaldson said, laughing. “I will start fishing. My wife and I like to camp… I’d also like to do some woodworking as well.”
Donaldson’s wife, Jodi, is a teacher at McSorley Elementary in the district and is not ready to retire yet, so they won’t be moving anywhere. He added that he has some part-time opportunities lined up for the coming year, and will do some consulting.
“I’m not one to look at retirement like I’m going to be able to sit still.”
When it comes to his successor, Donaldson said he has no doubts that Hansen is ready for the position. Donaldson said he and Hansen have worked on all the district’s major changes together, so he’s ready to take over as superintendent.
“He was such an impact on the actual construction and boots on the ground for that,” Donaldson said “He’s served in my capacity as needed. I think he’s just a strong educational leader and he’s got the passion as well.”
Hansen said the biggest thing he’s learned from his time working with Donaldson is the importance of looking at a problem from multiple angles.
“He always wanted to take a step back and see the biggest picture possible,” Hansen said, adding that the two were prone to debate over issues the district was facing, but always ended up in a better spot for it.
When it comes to being superintendent, Donaldson said he has only one piece of advice for Hansen: Enjoy the job.