Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Brian Benzel announced Wednesday that he will step down at the end of this school year to take a job at Whitworth College.
Benzel, 59, was named the vice president of finance and administration at the college, beginning Aug. 1. He asked the school board to accept his retirement effective in July or August.
“I felt like this was a wonderful fit,” Benzel said after making the announcement to the school board at its regular meeting Wednesday night. Whitworth also posted a news release about Benzel’s hire on its Web site Wednesday night.
Benzel told the board he is committed to finishing the school year and facing the challenges ahead for the state’s second-largest school district.
The announcement comes at a time when district officials are looking to fill a projected $10.5 million budget deficit.
Last month, Benzel proposed closing Pratt Elementary School as one cost-cutting measure and will begin meeting with staff next week to make more recommendations.
“I can’t remember a spring when there weren’t tough decisions,” Benzel said. “Sooner or later … you have to pass it on.”
Benzel recommended $9 million in budget cuts in 2003 and has watched as the district battles a continuing decline in student enrollment and shrinking state funding.
Despite that, he helped pass a bond that built three new elementary schools and paid for the current renovation under way at Rogers High School.
The district will break ground on the multimillion-dollar remodel of Shadle Park High School this June and is two years away from asking voters to approve another construction bond issue.
Benzel, who earned his doctorate from Gonzaga University, served as the superintendent of the Mead and Edmonds, Wash., school districts before being hired as Spokane’s chief in 2001.
A native of Ritzville, Wash., Benzel also served as an education policy analyst for the Legislature and as a supervisor for the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. He was also the No. 2 administrator for Seattle Public Schools and served for a time as Mead’s business manager.
Benzel said his new position will allow him to continue to work with the Spokane community but will give him more freedom in his personal life. He will provide financial and operational leadership to the college, including the construction of major facilities in arts and sciences. He may also do some teaching again.
“Our loss is Whitworth’s gain,” Spokane school board President Christie Querna said. “I think his experience in K-12 public education will help his conversations in the greater education community.”
She said Benzel has been instrumental is assuring the academic and financial successes of the district.
Board members will meet in the coming weeks to talk about whether to begin a national search for a candidate or look for an interim superintendent to replace Benzel, who earns a base salary of about $165,000.
Querna noted that Benzel’s decision could also affect her decision and that of board member Barb Richardson to step down this year as well. Richardson and Querna have both said they will not seek re-election in November.
That would leave three open seats on the board – two six-year terms and a two-year term to fill the seat occupied by newly appointed board member Sue Chapin, who replaced Don Barlow. Barlow was elected to the state Legislature.
“It’s been sort of the perfect storm,” Querna said. “I think there can be some virtue in someone who has gone through a superintendent search before.”