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For interim superintendent, it's a homecoming

Six months ago, Suzanne Cusick was in Portland with her husband Tim, living the good life of a retiree. She could wake up at who-cares-o’clock. Or later. Her to-do list included gardening. If she left her cell phone on the coffee table while running an errand, so what.

Then one day last spring her youngest daughter, a doctor who lives in Ashland, called to say Ashland School District was looking for a superintendent to replace Jay Hummel, who would be leaving when his contract was up in July.

Cusick knew she had no desire to take the full superintendent plunge, a commitment that would lop years off her sunset ride. But if the district was looking for a short-term fix in order to buy time, she thought, maybe they could help each other out. Cusick longed to spend more time with her granddaughter, and Ashland was still Ashland — the place she fell in love with during a Fourth of July vacation here in 1981, when she and her husband decided this was where they wanted to raise their four children.

“And then, when they made the decision, when I learned at least that it would be an interim (position), I said, ‘Oh, I think I could do that,’” Cusick said. “My husband was very supportive and our kids were excited.”

The district agreed that Cusick, 71, a former superintendent of the Longview School District in Longview, Washington, who retired in 2014, could do it, and in April she was hired to lead the district as its interim superintendent for the 2016-17 school year, affording it the time to conduct a more thorough search for a long-term superintendent that will take over next summer.

Cusick’s first day on the job was July 1.

“The school district is just wonderful and we love the community,” she said. “We have longtime friends here as well as new friends that we’re getting to know, and we just thought this will be a great one-year adventure and this opportunity to be near (family) for a year is terrific as well.

“It’s a wonderful school board, really. And we know the community is so supportive of schools also. I’m just appreciative, and hope I can give back a little bit.”

Cusick said she assumed she’d be retired for the rest of her life before she heard about Ashland’s need, but quickly switched gears once offered the position, renting their Portland home and moving into a rental on the south side of town. During a short transition period, Hummel helped Cusick get a handle on the intricacies of the job, including the district’s budget, curriculum and staff vacancies that needed to be filled.

Hummel, said Cusick, is still available by phone or email, as is his predecessor, Juli Di Chiro.

All in all, Cusick said, the transition has been a smooth one, albeit busy.

“Everybody’s been so, so welcoming,” she said. “I really feel humbled by it. They’ve just been so kind and so willing to offer support and ideas. So I’ve really appreciated that. I’ve really enjoyed going to every school building, meeting with the school (principals) and doing walk-throughs of our buildings. And even though our buildings are old and we always have needs for aging school buildings, they’re in very, very good condition. We’ve had a really good maintenance and facilities person here who, with his staff, has done an amazing job keeping these buildings going.”

Cusick is adamant that she won’t come in and push the district toward a radical new course. Her job, as she sees it, is to keep the ship on its current trajectory and make sure her predecessor is positioned for another smooth transition next July.

“Well, it’s kind of interesting because my approach here is different than if I were going to be a long-term superintendent,” she said. “Really, I believe my job is to pave the way for the new superintendent and to ensure that systems are in place, that the community is ready and the staff is ready for a new and hopefully very long-term school leader. And so I’m not making sweeping changes of any kind; that would not be appropriate or helpful at all. Certainly there are great curriculum initiatives going on and I’m supportive of that, but I’m not coming in with a whole new vision for this one year. That’s for your new and permanent superintendent to work with the board and do that.”

That response should leave little doubt as to Cusick’s frame of mind regarding another question that Ashlanders may be asking her come next spring: that is, whether she’d consider making a more permanent commitment.

That, she confirmed, is “off the table,” and Cusick says the district’s decision to stretch out its search for a permanent superintendent was a good one for several reasons. She would know. Besides being a superintendent herself, Cusick has worked for a superintendent search firm.

“They were very wise,” she said of ASD. “School superintendents are really hard to find and you really need to start the process in October, November, coming up soon, and then begin looking at applications in January and interviews in January and February. So you hopefully can have the whole thing sewn up by spring break. If you wait too much longer it’s very difficult because the good people are pulled out of the pool.”

Cusick said typically, districts in search of a new superintendent will get about 15 to 20 applicants and from there narrow the field to about three to five who will then visit the district for a battery of interviews.

While Cusick says she can help the board understand how to conduct the search, in order to avoid the appearance of favoritism she’ll keep her fingers out of the actual process.

“That would not be appropriate for me to do it,” she said. “I will help the board with the timeline, all kinds of things related to the search, but my job is to keep the school district running smoothly and I shouldn’t cross that line of doing the search. Part of it is, I have a lot of acquaintances, friends who might be interested and I don’t want to be in a position where it looks like I’ve set something up because that’s not me at all. It’s totally the community and the board that should make that decision.”

Cusick and her husband both grew up in small towns in South Dakota before moving out west, first to Los Angeles and later San Jose. Four children later they decided the big-city life wasn’t for them, so they began researching small towns that might be a good place to raise a family.

Ashland, with its fairy-tale setting, fantastic schools, commitment to the arts and even a small college, seemed to be a good fit, but Cusick said their visit in the summer of 1981 sealed the deal. Soon thereafter Cusick’s husband sold his real estate business, they sold their house and about eight weeks later Ashland was their new home.

That fall, Cusick taught music at Lincoln and Walker Elementary while Tim Cusick got back into real estate. About 10 years later, Suzanne Cusick took on her first administrative position as the assistant principal at South Medford High School. She held that job for three years before Glencoe High School in Hillsboro hired her to be its principal.

By then, the Cusick children — three girls and a boy — had all graduated from Ashland High. Now, they’re busy forging their own careers. There's a lawyer, a dentist, a systems administrator and the doctor.

“We can thank Ashland schools,” she said.

Cusick, who holds a doctorate in educational policy from the University of Oregon and a master's in music literature and vocal performance from the University of South Dakota, worked in the Hillsboro School District for about 15 years, half of that time as assistant superintendent. In 2008 she was named the superintendent of the Longview School District, from which she retired in 2014.

Now, Cusick’s back in the place she and her husband hand-picked to raise a family some 35 years ago. The charm that first drew her here some 35 years ago, she says, still exists.

“I just have such joy when I drive home,” she said, “because I go down Mountain, and to look over to the left and see all those kids out in the field, it’s just so exciting. I love seeing it.”

Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.