ashland.news
July 18, 2024

New superintendent starts with Ashland School District on Monday

Joseph Hattrick starts as Superintendent of Ashland School District on July 1. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth
July 1, 2024

Faces uphill budget challenges with optimism, hopes to avoid potential layoffs in 2025

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

As Joseph Hattrick takes the helm of Ashland School District on Monday, July 1, preparing to oversee a recently approved overall budget of more than $95 million, about 400 employees and about 2,500 students in the district, he told Ashland.news ahead of his first day that he’s up for the challenge and committed to Ashland for the long term.

Hattrick, 46, sat down with Ashland.news outside a coffee shop Wednesday to talk about his background in education and philosophy going into the multifaceted role. Ashland School Board members conducted a nationwide search in the fall, hiring Hattrick in February to fill the role held by Samuel Bogdanove since 2020. 

Hattrick told Ashland.news he immediately felt welcome upon arriving in Ashland and meeting with individuals in the community.

“The climate and culture of Southern Oregon has been the strongest I’ve had of the states I’ve worked in,” Hattrick said, noting he has been an educator also in Washington and Arizona.

“The network of support for Oregon leaders is strong. I would like to end my career in Ashland.”

Hattrick added that being in Ashland feels like home to him to already.

“I don’t plan to leave, assuming the community and the board allows me to stay,” Hattrick said.

Bogdanove’s contract was approved by school board members through 2025, according to Rebecca Dyson, school board chair, but he announced his retirement in October 2023 ahead of the completion of the contract.

“I am deeply grateful for my time in Ashland School District and the opportunity to serve as a superintendent over the last four years,” Bogdanove said in an email to Ashland.news on Friday. “I feel exceptionally good about handing that leadership off to Dr. Joseph Hattrick. He has a clear vision for education and what’s good for kids, and he understands the value of relationship and connection in learning. He chose Ashland because of this exceptional community and he shares a vision of excellence in education for each and every student. I look forward to watching the district thrive with his leadership.”

Hattrick comes to Ashland after serving as superintendent of Rainier School District, in Rainier, Oregon, located about an hour from Portland, since 2020, as well as superintendent and principal of Riverbend Preparatory Academy in Arizona in 2015 and 2016, as well as from 2018 to 2020. He also served as vice president and superintendent of Tatonka Education Services and Riverbend Preparatory Academy from 2016 to 2018.

Overseeing 120 staff, three schools and about 850 students at Rainier School District, Hattrick is preparing to take the reins of a larger district in Ashland, but feels prepared for the job.

“In smaller districts, the role of a superintendent tends to be much more challenging because you wear far more hats,” Hattrick said in a followup phone interview Friday.

For instance, at Rainier, he served as superintendent and also a human resources director.

“While the challenges are different (in Ashland), I’m up for the challenge,” Hattrick said.

“I think the opportunities are greater because you have more people to collaborate with and find creative solutions.”

His is a systematic approach to leadership where he wants all of his decisions to be weighed with as many perspectives as possible.

“And of course, with perspectives come disagreement,” Hattrick said. “I was told early on in my career … ‘remember, in your role, you won’t always be agreed with.’

“I’m going to do my best everyday,” he added.

Hattrick has an extensive background in education, but education was not always in his line of sight, however, for a career.

“When I was in college … I had no plans to be an educator,” Hattrick said. “My only goal was to help people.”

He was 19 then, enrolled at Western Washington University, and was paired with a pre-counseling internship at an alternative school for two years. He went on to teach special education at a middle school, later earning his master’s degree in Social Work from Eastern Washington University, and a doctorate of education in organizational leadership and K-12 Education from Grand Canyon University. He worked as a child therapist at a psychiatric institute, as well as becoming a principal at the age of 24. 

“I loved it, I’m really passionate about leadership and found my niche,” Hattrick said. “They sent me to (Casa Grande) Arizona to build a school just like that.”

Regardless of different roles he’s held, Hattrick said he’s always aimed to serve, and that will continue in Ashland, he said.

“Education and leadership is a lifestyle,” he said. “(Superintendency) — I feel like it’ s counseling, I feel like it’s social work, I feel like it’s customer service.”

New superintendent faces budget challenges as he begins new role

Hattrick joins a district facing a steady decline in enrollment, losing 300 students since the end of Open Enrollment in 2019, and significant financial challenges, as well as recent layoffs of classified workers announced earlier this spring, with the possibility for more layoffs on the horizon in 2025, according to Scott Whitman, business services director for the district.

The trend of declining enrollment and the use of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) funds to sustain staffing levels during the pandemic contributed to the need for layoffs, according to Whitman.

“That put a strain on our budget when those (ESSER) funds ran out,” Whitman told Ashland.news on Friday. “The district should’ve been making these cuts three years ago because that’s when the enrollment started declining and our revenues for the state started declining significantly.” 

Whitman, who has about two decades in school finance overall, arrived at the district during the height of the decline about two and a half years ago.

“We can’t keep overspending as we have over the last two years,” Whitman said. “The budget that we have approved should balance our spending so we’re not deficit spending anymore, and then further cuts would be needed to start building our fund balance again.”

The district is engaged in a two-stage budget reduction process, Bogdanove told Ashland.news earlier this year, and the district is projected to meet stage one reduction of $2.4 million from a $40 million budget going into the 24-25 school year, representing a 6% cut, as previously reported by Ashland.news.

Stage two reductions will need to occur starting next year and total approximately $2.5 million, another roughly 6% cut.  

“We need to cut more because we need to start being able to build back our fund balance to get on a stronger financial footing basically,” Whitman said.

Whitman said the school district’s spending about $1.6 million more than it brought in in school funding revenues.

“That’s what’s been eating into our fund balance,” Whitman said.

“I can imagine a scenario where we do have to reduce our teaching staff after this next year,” he added. “I could see that happening.”

Those would be administrative decisions as to what the cuts would be, though, he said, and a lot depends on state funding.

“The next biennium is a big turning point,” Whitman said. “We do need significantly higher funding from the state to keep going.”

Whitman anticipates Hattrick coming aboard on Monday and said he’s looking forward to working together on these issues.

“He has a pretty good picture of where we’re at and he’ll bring a lot of ideas from his experience at his prior districts and how to deal with budget challenges and move forward,” Whitman said.

Whitman said both have discussed possibilities on how to move forward, but will discuss them with the school board at a later date.

“A year out, it’s a little early to say,” Hattrick said on Friday when asked about the possibility of layoffs in the future. “Obviously I’d rather avoid that. It could be reality, but I’d rather look at how do we increase revenue than have to make cuts.”

Hattrick said he’s aware that Gov. Tina Kotek’s Office is listening to administrators across the state, which he believes could have an effect on the state school funds going into next year.

“That could really be a positive benefit for all the schools in the state, Ashland obviously being one of them,” Hattrick said. “So I think there’s a lot of moving pieces right now. I think what we do is really focus on the current budget and then continue to make some positive strides that will have positive impacts for the next year’s budget and hopefully future bienniums.”

On June 13, the Ashland School Board approved the Budget Committee’s recommendation of $95,616,150, $41,243,000 of which includes the district’s general fund. The approved budget also contains a proposed 3% cost of living increase for teachers and classified employees. The caveat, according to Whitman, who prepares the budget for the district, is that the classified and certified (teacher’s) union are still bargaining for wage increases, and agreements have not yet been reached. 

Whitman said during the school board meeting that if the district were to agree to a rate higher than 3% wage increases, the move could result in the need to reduce staffing.

“Since the district’s fund balance is so low, we’re budgeting so tightly because of our reductions over the last couple years, any additional cost above that 3% (COLA) will have to be offset by cuts in our budget,” he said on Friday.

“If we could only come to an agreement on a higher COLA proposal, we would have to cut staff to pay for it, beyond what we’ve already cut.”

It was also noted by a school board member during the June 13 school board meeting that more than 80 students have left the school district during the last year. 

“Getting more students, keeping students and increasing enrollment … that would be the fastest way to fix budget issues,” Whitman said.

Asked to weigh in on the financial struggles of the district, Hattrick said he plans to listen to all voices. He believes financial struggles are not unique to the Ashland School District.

“I do think one of the solutions to some of the budget issues is obviously looking at enrollment and how we can attract some of those students back, whether they are looking at virtual options, homeschool, or if they’ve left the district for other reasons and so we need to really see how we can meet the learning needs of all students,” Hattrick said in a phone interview on Friday. “Now I don’t have the specific answer for how we’re going to do that, but it is really learning from the past and what’s going on presently to figure out how we can address that in the future.”

Hattrick also acknowledged the use of ESSER relief dollars by many school districts in 2020, which contributed in part to the need for reduced staffing numbers this spring. Hattrick said while the funds were incredibly helpful and necessary to school districts, some districts now need to recover from receiving the help. 

“So we have to look and learn from the past but we also need to forward think about how we can get out of that,” Hattrick said.  

In addition to ESSER funds, declining enrollment by about 300 students also significantly contributed to the layoff of nearly 20 classified workers.

Hattrick shared how he addressed the use of ESSER funds while he served as superintendent in Rainier.

“We minimized the number of staffing investments with ESSER,” he said.

“ESSER funds were used to support some staff hires, but very minimal … districts were cautioned about using too much for staffing, because as soon as the funds went away, you can’t sustain it.

“We were fortunate that with a lower enrollment, we only needed to address so many staffing issue,” he added. “We were lucky enough to address other issues with the COVID (relief) funds.”

Hattrick describes himself as fiscally responsible, especially with funds that may go away.

“I try to be really mindful of that,” Hattrick said.

“There will be funds that come, whether it’s ESSER, whether it’s something else, and I think regardless, we have to look at the current priorities,” he added.

“I would hope that anytime funds come to any district, it is first looking at what is the current priority of the district and how do we support that. It’s not always personnel, it might be programs, it might be systems … that takes a hard look at the strategic plan, what are we about, where are we going? And there’s also a systems approach to it, so how many constituents are involved in the decision-making process … It shouldn’t be done in a silo. 

“It’s engaging with as many people as you can to determine what the priorities are, then, how is that going to support the most students?” he added.

Hattrick, referencing his comments on engaging as many individuals as possible in his decision making processes, sees this mindset as a core philosophy for him as incoming superintendent.

“I think that’s why the superintendent is overseeing the big picture,” Hattrick said. 

“I need to be looking at what’s best for every single school, not one school,” he added. 

Ashland School District offices on Siskiyou Boulevard. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
School board selected Hattrick unanimously for role

School board members shared comments during the online-only board meeting in February centered on selecting Hattrick, including School Board Chair Rebecca Dyson.

“There was always a story with Joseph … of something that he did that was just above and beyond the call,” Dyson said, as previously reported by Ashland.news, “where he helped a student or he helped an entire community that was in crisis, or he went above and beyond to create an event. It’s amazing to see all the good that he has done in the various communities he’s been in, and I am so excited to bring him to our community, and I know he’s going to fit right in.”

School board member Russell Hatch also praised Hattrick for his financial acumen and ability to turn school districts from hiring and spending freezes to surplus funding, in addition to maintaining positive relationships in the district and promoting equity.

“He was a champion for equity for the LGBTQ population in his area, in spite of the fact that it was not exactly welcome,” Hatch said in February. “Being able to stand up for what is right when it’s uncomfortable is something that really stands out to me.”

Hattrick, who identifies as gay, emphasized he promotes equity for all students. 

“I’m coming to Ashland truly me, which I’ve never done at a job before,” Hattrick said.

“At previous jobs, I’ve definitely separated my personal and private life, which of course I’m still doing here, but I am coming truly authentically me … I want the community to know who I am.”

While serving as superintendent of Rainier, he shared a proclamation recognizing Pride month and said gay/straight alliances for students identifying as LGBTQ were brought into the district during his time there. He was recently installed as president of Coalition of Oregon Superintendent Association’s (COSA) equity board of directors.

“I want to focus on equity and that truly means all,” Hattrick said. “Too often in all arenas, not just education, we forget certain parts of the population. We can’t just make a decision that is going to impact one part of our population.”

Joseph Hattrick starts as Superintendent of Ashland School District on July 1. Hattrick met with Ashland.news on June 26 to talk about his background and his excitement moving to Ashland from Rainier, Oregon, where he served as a superintendent since 2020. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth
Hattrick comes from a musical background, proponent of the arts

Arriving to the interview in a “Wheel of Fortune” T-shirt and shorts, fitting with summertime weather, Hattrick’s engaging personality was on full display.

He shared about auditioning for the show before the pandemic and being selected as a contestant (Hattrick ended up winning a trip and some prize money, but couldn’t elaborate on the details).

He grew up in Vancouver, Washington, with three brothers, one of them a twin. In high school, he was heavily focused on music, playing saxophone and steel drums and competed in competitive marching band. 

Despite not formally participating in theater throughout high school, he was asked to audition and later play the voice of the plant in “Little Shop of Horrors” and later on as a tree in a production of “Cinderella” for community theater.

Hattrick said as superintendent, he hopes to oversee schools in a way that allows students to tap into their passions, like he did, whether that’s extra curricular activities, foreign languages or Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs.

“I think finding that thing that will excite kids to be in school oftentimes will be the arts,” Hattrick said. “I think leveraging community supports is really important and that’s one thing that excites me about Ashland … There’s so much support around the arts and supporting kids in that way.”

Aside from his role in education, he’s looking forward to living and serving the district in Ashland, where he plans to take up running again, another interest he’s passionate about — when he’s not hitting the ground running the district.

Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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