New buildings have been taking over the landscape in the Freeman area – new schools which will serve students for years.
Freeman High School was completed before the beginning of this school year and the elementary school is in the process of a major facelift.
The change in the Freeman landscape may be the legacy of Sergio Hernandez, 64, superintendent of the district since 2006, who announced he will retire as of June 30.
Freeman, a mostly rural southern Spokane County school district of 900 students stretching from the Idaho state line to the east and to nearly Highway 195 to the west, passed a $19.5 million bond issue in 2008. With state matching money, the total project is $33 million.
Brent Fetsch, chair of the Freeman school board, said he often thinks about the people who built the schools in Freeman 50 years ago and hopefully 50 years from now, people will remember Hernandez.
“He’s been a tremendous leader for the Freeman School District,” Fetsch said. “He’s accomplished a great deal.”
Fetsch said Hernandez has made his position on the board easier, since Hernandez is so knowledgeable and personable.
“He’s just a man that I respect personally,” Fetsch said.
Board member Chad Goldsmith agrees. Goldsmith, who was on the board when Hernandez was hired in 2006 and grew up in the Freeman School District, said it was Hernandez’s ability to connect with members of the community that convinced the board to hire him.
“He’s the only superintendent in the state who could have got our school bonds passed,” Goldsmith said. “He’s going to be greatly missed.”
Although the bond was passed and construction is well on its way under Hernandez, he hopes the new buildings won’t be his legacy.
“I hope they remember me for caring about people, caring about the students and the staff and working as a team player,” he said. “The buildings really are a team effort. The community pulled together, we passed the bond. It’s all a team effort.”
Hernandez was born in Chile and moved to the Walla Walla Valley when he was 5. The family later moved to Oakland, Calif., in 1957 where he attended college.
“I thought I wanted to go to law school,” he said.
But in the late ’60s, during the Vietnam War, teachers were scarce and he was asked to teach history and Spanish – his first language – for just a year.
“It was one of the greatest experiences teaching there,” he said. He said he still keeps in contact with many of those students today.
He taught for 20 years with the Seventh-day Adventist educational system which took him and his family all over the country. He’s taught in California, Washington, Texas, Pennsylvania and Kansas.
He spent the rest of his career in the public school system, most recently as superintendent of Tekoa in Whitman County before coming to Freeman.
The time seemed right for him to retire, he said. Construction on the schools should wrap up in May and Freeman will start working on its strategic plan.
“We’ve kind of held off on that just to finish up the project (construction). It’s now time to focus on the strategic plan. Someone needs to come in that would help facilitate and develop it and then implement it, instead of inheriting a plan that may or may not mean anything to them,” he said.
In 41 years of education, Hernandez said the biggest change has been the increased role of schools in the development of students. When he first started, the parental aspect was the greatest focus, and now it feels like the schools play a greater role.
“But each community is unique,” he said. “Each community is different. Freeman is a phenomenal community with tremendous parent support and involvement.”
The one thing that hasn’t changed for Hernandez is the students.
“Kids are still kids, they just fascinate me,” he said. He noted students in the Future Business Leaders of America chapter at Freeman often floor him with their leadership skills. If he visits a first-grade classroom, he loves to see what they are learning and the way their minds process information.
As for his future, Hernandez said he’s not sure what he’s going to do, but knows he wants to continue working with students.
“There will always be opportunities, I’m not sure what it will be,” he said. “I’m open to most anything. Sometimes there are districts that are looking for an interim superintendent for a time, maybe I could help contribute. I’m looking for ways that I can help and contribute to a district or to some other organization that may be looking for someone with those kinds of skills. I really have no idea.”
He does plan to spend more time with his grandchildren. He and his wife, Wendy, have two children. His son, John, and his wife, Jill, live in the Kirkland, Wash., area and have a daughter, Olivia.
His daughter, Becky Cox, and her husband, Kenton, live in the Freeman district and their children, Ashley, a first-grader, and Carson, a kindergartener, both attend Freeman Elementary School.
For his last few months with the district, Hernandez said he and his staff will be working to decide on the furniture, fixtures and equipment for the finished elementary school and the multipurpose room that is under construction that will serve both the elementary and the middle schools.
He’ll also start working on the budget for next year.
He said his career in education has been very rewarding and he wouldn’t do anything different. He also said he feels the district will receive a number of candidates for a qualified superintendent.
“Freeman has a very good reputation, a small-school environment, a safe school, very little discipline issues, good test scores, very supportive parents and community, a strong board,” he said. “It’s going to be a good job for somebody.”