Dr. Whitney Meissner has resigned after three years at the La Conner Schools helm to accept an administrative post in another district, a move she announced prior to a video-conferenced local school board meeting Monday night.
Meissner said she will step down as superintendent June 30 and reveal her new assignment the following day.
She called the decision bittersweet, noting that her daughter, Molly, is a La Conner High graduate, and that they have made many lifelong friends here.
“The highlights from my time here are so many,” she told the Weekly News on Tuesday. “There are some really great people I will always call friends. Our administrative and leadership teams did great work every day, but I’m especially proud of what they helped us do during this COVID-19 (school) closure.”
Her tenure as La Conner Schools chief was hardly bland.
Meissner drew official rebukes last June from membership of the two La Conner Schools employee unions, who called for her ouster in the wake of unexpected departures of elementary principal Bev Bowen and food services director Georgia Johnson, both of whom had enjoyed widespread campus support.
Employees alleged Meissner, with whom they had sometimes contentious contract negotiations in 2018, had created a hostile work environment, employed a divisive management style and that her interpersonal communication skills were lacking and occasionally overbearing.
Meissner answered with a mea culpa, vowing an improved dialogue going forward.
But union leadership felt the gesture was too little, too late.
Adding to the tumultuous mix was the La Conner School Board undergoing a flurry of change, the most recent example being the surprise resignation of longtime member Brad Smith, who had represented the Shelter Bay director district for 14 years. His resignation was effective June 19 he wrote in his letter to the Board last week.
The 2019 board elections, coming just months after the unions issued votes of no confidence in Meissner, saw challengers John Agen and Marlys Baker defeat incumbents Kate Szurek and Janie Beasley by wide margins.
When Baker vacated her seat earlier this year to move to Mount Vernon, the board tabbed Amanda Bourgeois rather than Beasley as her successor.
Prior to that, shortly after La Conner voters approved a 2019 levy proposal, board member John Thulen resigned from the panel midway through his third term. Thulen was succeeded by Susie Gardner Deyo, who now chairs the board.
Deyo on Monday credited Meissner with having steered La Conner Schools through the virus crisis this spring, bolstered district ties with the Swinomish Tribal Community, marshaled passage of the levy and for providing strong financial stewardship.
Meissner was also lauded as an effective spokesperson for the school district, frequently asked to represent La Conner Schools at various public forums.
Meissner cited all those, plus her work as a La Conner Rotarian, with being the local missions of which she is most proud.
“We implemented more collaborative projects with Swinomish,” she said, “such as Between Two Worlds and the totem pole restorations. We implemented student board representatives. We brought tribal elders to speak to our staff of their experiences with schools, including boarding schools. We implemented ‘Principal for a Day,’ which brought dozens of community members to our schools. As a member of Rotary, we helped fund civic projects, scholarships and global opportunities.”
Meissner’s resignation drew mostly conciliatory and congratulatory responses, dozens of which were posted on social media, in great measure a reflection of her having navigated La Conner Schools amid the fluid COVID-19 pandemic and stepping up to instruct advanced math classes following the untimely passing of teacher Allen Lowe in January.
“We wish Dr. Meissner the best in her new position,” said La Conner Education Association Co-President Lisa Thomas. “The LEA is optimistic that we can find an innovative and strong leader who can guide us through these next few years that might prove to be challenging due to the current pandemic. We know we can work together to continue to make our schools and community a great place to be.”
Lynette Cram, now the longest serving La Conner School Board director, echoed Deyo’s sentiments in regard to Meissner while also praising Smith’s service to the district, a role that included his frequent trips to Olympia as a liaison with state lawmakers and agencies.
“I am so incredibly thankful that I was able to serve with Brad Smith for the past four years,” Cram said. “I considered him my mentor on the board and his experience, wisdom and humor will be missed.
“Brad always focused on the students first,” she added, “and understood that our work needed to be grounded in equitable access for learning opportunities and student growth.” Deyo and Cram said the board hopes to have an interim superintendent in place by Aug. 1. A formal search for a new superintendent is tentatively set to begin in January, they said.