The West Valley schools superintendent is stepping down and now has a chance to reflect

Gene Sementi has worked for West Valley School District for 31 years, and he's been superintendent for the last eight. But he recently announced that he's stepping down from the position. The Inlander caught up with Sementi last week to talk about his tenure at West Valley and about the McCleary case that changed how schools across the state are funded. Answers have been lightly edited for length.

INLANDER: Why are you stepping down now?

SEMENTI: I've been here 31 years, it all started as a teacher and a coach, and I'll be 62 when I retire, and I'm ready to do something different. I think most importantly I just really felt like the district was in a really good place. It was a good time to transition leadership. We have a balanced budget. We just got the supplemental levy. We're in a good spot.

When you took over in 2012, did you anticipate school funding and the McCleary case would be such a huge issue?

The McCleary lawsuit was never about equity. It should have only been about equity, that a kid in Spokane, or West Valley, Liberty had the same high-value education that a kid in Bellevue or Seattle had. It was more about funding mechanisms.

Now, if you look at the state through the 30,000-foot view, it looked like everybody floated up. Some floated up higher and some actually went backwards a bit. And a lot of those ones that went backwards were from northeast Washington. I never would have thought when we started talking about the McCleary resolution that it would be a negative for us.

What do you think students today are facing that's unique to their generation compared to when you or I went to school?

Everything is more immediate. There's a rush to get answers right away. Instead of thinking and collaborating and working through. That immediacy of knowledge has changed the way you have to teach.

One of the things that's really different is how social media plays into their lives. There are a lot of positives from that. But when I first started, if there was a bully at your school, you saw that bully when you're at your school. You didn't see him on the weekend, over the summer. He wasn't sitting on your nightstand when you went to bed. And now kids can't get a break from that.

Is there anything that you look back on and would change?

One of the things I regret, more than anything else: I taught middle school and high school level in West Valley, and coached. I was a middle school assistant principal and elementary principal and high school principal. And I knew the name of every kid in the school. I knew their brothers and sisters and their parents' names. Over the last few years, the older I've gotten, and the more removed I've been from the kids I taught... I've lost some of that touch and some of that contact.

What are you proud of?

Our graduation rate. Staff really bought into the idea of, "We have to do everything we can for every one of our kids to graduate and get ready for college." We've been as high as a 98 or 99 percent graduation rate. This year we're at 96 percent graduation rate, and 3 percent of those kids are still there in their fifth year, so it will end up being probably 99 percent. So when you have a high school staff that's disappointed to see 96 percent, that's a pretty good sign. ♦

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione, born and raised in Spokane, is an Inlander staff writer covering education and social services in the Inland Northwest.