YAKIMA, Wash. -- Jack Irion has spent 22 years as an administrator with the Yakima School District.
In 1997, he was lured from the state’s west side and hired as deputy superintendent, then appointed superintendent in 2015.
At the end of this school year, he’s retiring.
“It’s been a great time,” he said.
On a recent afternoon, Irion visited with a Yakima Herald-Republic reporter to briefly reflect on his experience as superintendent in a Q&A session.
• What was your biggest challenge as superintendent?
“On my first day of school we had still not filled 36 teacher positions in our district — 36 teacher positions. One of our greatest problems was to make sure we had a quality educator in front of our kids each and every day. What I learned on that day — my takeaway from that first day, the circumstance we found ourselves in — is that the old way of recruiting teachers just wasn’t working for us. We were not competitive. That’s why we had the shortage.”
• How was that overcome?
“So we had to do something different. We could not recruit doing the same old, same old. We began tapping student teachers. And we’ve hired some great ones. This spring we will have our first student teacher from an out-of-state university. What we did that first year is I reached out to universities throughout our state. We created a program, a home-stay program. I believe that if people become embedded in Yakima and know about what our city has to offer, they’re going to fall in love with this place. Yakima is a great place to live and work. ... We negotiated a teaching contract that made teachers in Yakima the highest paid in the area — not the highest in the state — but the highest paid in this part of the state, Central Washington.”
• How will state changes in school funding impact the district?
“They’re forcing all the districts in the state to go to this state benefits plan, so we no longer have an opportunity to have our own trust and provide our own benefits to our employees. So the two things we were able to go out and share with people (the benefits to working here) in the Yakima School District, the state took those away from us.
“I think the state’s intent was honorable, but I think we just created another inequity. I believe the question the state should be asking is what are we doing to make sure every child in our state has a quality educator working with them each and every day? The challenge that the person who follows me has is, how do you go out and compete for the very best?”
• What you would have liked to have accomplished?
“One of the things we have not gotten to has been a vision of mine is to have dual-language schools. Most of those would be English and Spanish. But I also see the need for at least one or two (schools) with maybe a Pacific Rim language, Mandarin Chinese or Japanese with English and have a school or two with those languages and that carries on to the middle school. But I would like to see all of our students be proficient in at least two languages.”
• Do teachers reflect the dominant Latino culture of students?
“That continues to be an issue. The next superintendent of the Yakima School District needs to address that issue. That’s an issue that we’ve not been able to fully address. We’ve tried some unique things. When we had a disaster in Puerto Rico, we reached out to see if teachers wanted to come here. We’ve reached out through social media to see if there is an interest. But there is no question that we need to improve in that particular area. One of things that you can do that we have not done enough — that falls on my shoulders, that’s my responsibility for not getting that done — is we can create scholarships for our own students. ... We can set up something contractually saying you owe the district a certain number of years teaching upon graduation.”
• What’s next?
“I have a daughter on the west side who has a daughter, and a son that has two boys on the East Coast. So what we will do primarily is be with family. We’ll be East Coast, West Coast. I’ve got a brother and sister who live on the west side of the state. My wife has a brother who lives down in the Portland area. Family has always been at the core of what we do so our vacations throughout our marriage have always been centered around getting the family together and this will be no different. We’re not planning any exotic trips or anything like that. We just plan to spend time with family and it’s fun to spoil the grandkids.”