‘The luckiest kid on the block:’ Ranells embraces West Ada challenge

VIDEO: Idaho Education News partnered with KIVI and KNIN to interview new West Ada School District Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells. Here is Michelle Edmonds’ profile:

Mary Ann Ranells has traversed the state during a 43-year career in education.

Her resume includes stops at six Idaho school districts and a three-year stint as a deputy to former state superintendent Marilyn Howard.

Mary Ann Ranells
Mary Ann Ranells fields questions in December, before West Ada trustees named her the district’s new superintendent. Despite high-profile wrangling between trustees and former Superintendent Linda Clark, Ranells says the district’s educators have maintained their focus on the students. “It’s a tribute to these professionals. They’re just focused on doing what’s right, at the school level.”

Her latest move has taken her out of retirement — and into the top spot in Idaho’s largest district. As West Ada’s new superintendent, she inherits challenges that include enrollment growth, an emotional debate over school boundaries and a recall campaign that targets four of the district’s five trustees.

If Ranells is worried, she doesn’t show it. She describes teacher retention, a perennial issue in underfunded West Ada, as a “great luscious challenge.” She is equally positive about everything on her checklist.

“I think I’m the luckiest kid on the block right now,” said Ranells, 64, in a recent interview with Idaho Education News and KIVI/KNIN TV.

The job search

Shortly after Linda Clark’s abrupt resignation as West Ada superintendent, Ranells was conducting a workshop at the Idaho School Boards Association’s annual November conference. It was there she met West Ada’s trustees — who now found themselves at a Coeur d’Alene convention center putting out feelers for a new superintendent.

Despite the high-profile schism between Clark and the board, Ranells recalled having a good first impression of the trustees. “Here are some very bright people who are very passionate about learning,” she said in an interview.

The job search moved quickly. Ranells, one year removed from her job as superintendent in North Idaho’s Lakeland School District, applied eagerly. Trustees moved quickly as well. They brought Ranells in for interviews and tours in mid-December. Ranells accepted the job on Dec. 15. It wasn’t until January that the two parties agreed on a contract; she will receive $77,478 for the remainder of the school year.

Still, Ranells and trustees had some candid discussions before she agreed to the job. At one point in the interview, she posed a point-blank question: Would trustees focus on their responsibilities, as specified in state law, and trust Ranells to be in charge of what happens in the schools?

When she was told she’d have trustees’ support, she was ready to make the move.

An ‘intolerance for mediocrity’

Shortly after Ranells took the superintendent’s job in Lakeland, the district faced a quandary.

In most areas, and in most demographic groups, students were doing well. One weakness stood out, however. Student writing skills were lagging. Several years before the advent of the Common Core standards — and their emphasis on writing as a method of reinforcing critical thinking skills — the district reexamined its approach to writing.

For educators and administrators, it was an embarrassing and painful process, Ranells said. Staff didn’t just have to rethink the teaching process; they also had to come to grips with a grading process that was inconsistent. The process wasn’t easy on students — especially students who were on the verge of graduating and weren’t accustomed to tough grades. Some students weren’t shy about using their writing assignments to air their opinions.

“The seniors were furious with me,” said Ranells.

The story illustrates Ranells’ approach to academics — data-driven and direct. Ranells says she holds her staff to “extraordinarily high standards.” And when it comes to curriculum design, she can draw on her experience and academic background.

“That’s her strength. That’s what she loves to do,” said Rob Winslow, executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators. Winslow has known Ranells for more than 20 years.

Here as well, Ranells is impressed by what she has seen so far in West Ada. As she works her way through tours of the district’s 52 schools, she is struck by a willingness to change — and an “intolerance for mediocrity.”

Financial realities

A school district can do anything. But it can’t do everything.

The saying — which Ranells borrows from her husband, Bob, superintendent in North Idaho’s Wallace School District — well describes West Ada.

Fiscal realities are daunting.

West Ada’s per-pupil spending, $6,744 in 2014-15, ranked No. 101 of the state’s 115 districts, and 11 percent below Idaho’s statewide average. Voters approved a two-year, $28 million levy in November, relieving some immediate pressure. Days later, a district judge ruled West Ada’s class fees unconstitutional, punching a $900,000 annual hole in the budget. West Ada will replace the money, Ranells said, but hasn’t figured out how.

Then there is the ongoing pressure on facilities. Enrollment is approaching 37,500, after a 2 percent increase this fall. With space at a premium, district trustees could vote Tuesday on new school boundaries.

But moving students won’t eliminate the need for new schools. Just 11 months ago, West Ada voters approved $96 million for three new schools and a renovation job at Meridian High School. Ranells wants to crunch some numbers and meet with local developers before figuring out what to do next.

“It won’t be long before we are in need of another building,” Ranells said.

Recall realities

Ranells didn’t want to talk about one lingering reality in West Ada: trustee recalls.

“Our focus is on the kids,” she said. “It’s out of my realm.”

Days after the interview, the recalls became a reality. Recall organizers turned in petitions last week, targeting board chair Tina Dean and trustees Russell Joki, Julie Madsen and Carol Sayles. The four trustees quarreled openly with Clark for months before her resignation — then voted in December to bring Ranells aboard. If Ada County elections officials approve the petitions, the recalls could appear on the May 17 ballot.

Madison School District Superintendent Geoffrey Thomas has known Ranells for more than a decade. In 2013, he and Ranells served together on Gov. Butch Otter’s education task force — a much-scrutinized committee that agreed on 20 far-reaching reform recommendations. Thomas says Ranells is well-prepared for the turbulence of West Ada.

“She understands politics,” Thomas said.

Winslow agrees.

“I think she’s going to help that district gets its focus back,” he said.

And Ranells says she’s ready for the long haul. Her husband will continue his work in Wallace — and she says the two are ready to live like “road warriors” once again. Ranells says she has made at least a three-year commitment — and says trustees have asked if she’d be interested in staying as long as seven years.

And while Ranells is reluctant to weigh in on the recall issue, the political turbulence is a lingering reality in her new district. It came up as Ranells considered the job. As she spoke to friends and contacts who encouraged Ranells to apply for the vacancy, she would ask them what they wanted in a new superintendent.

Ranells shared one telling response: “We just need somebody to come love us.”