Bill Mester, community-minded leader of
Snohomish Schools, dies
SNOHOMISH — Thoughtful and compassionate.
Inquisitive and introspective.
Bill Mester made a large presence in a quiet way as superintendent of Snohomish Schools for 14 years.
By the time he retired in June 2016, Snohomish’s community had said yes to becoming a town of two high schools and it gained a new pool in the Snohomish Aquatic Center. Throughout, he listened to give people what they wanted for their children.
Bill Mester died Monday, Nov. 1 with his family at his side. He was 73.
“I have not met anyone like him before,” said Becky Brockman, who today is Snohomish’s Director of Academic Leadership and once was the principal of Little Cedars Elementary.
Mester believed deeply in including others’ voices and to hear others’ opinions, even ones you don’t understand or disagree with, Brockman said. He saw everyone with value.
Justin Fox-Bailey, who is the head of Snohomish’s teacher’s union, worked intimately with Mester. “I got to understand how unusually gifted he was,” Fox-Bailey said.
“He believed deeply that by being in relationships with other people — in making them feel safe, in making them feel valued, in making them feel they have a voice,” Fox-Bailey said.
By building relationships, he built community.
“He passed $500 million in bonds and he did it very simply,” Brockman said: “He went to people’s homes and listened to them.”
He’d unassumingly ask what people want to see.
“In those chats, he made it clear it wasn’t ‘his’ school district, it was ‘our’ school district,” Brockman described. Even people who disagreed with the plan knew they were being heard.
The community responded, passing a $141 million construction bond in 2004 and approving another $262 million bond in summer 2008. These were immense asks.
“He was always asking, what did people want to create for Snohomish,” said Scott Peacock, today the superintendent of the Lakewood School District. “That’s how we built Glacier Peak, and built Valley View and the (heavily renovated) Machias Elementary.”
These two bonds also replaced the freshman campus with the Snohomish Aquatic Center, built Little Cedars Elementary, heavily renovated Riverview Elementary, enlarged Centennial Middle School and improved the Parkway Campus where AIM High School is located.
“People would say, ‘Bill, that can never happen,’ and Bill would say, ‘don’t say that, tell me how to do that’ — how to make that happen,” said Jay Hagen, who’s been on the school board for 25 years.
He brought the community in, convening public committees with upwards of 40 residents participating to be sure people felt ownership in their school district.
Strategist? Certainly. “He told me he always was planning six months ahead,” Hagen said.
But never forceful.
“Bill was an innately curious man and he cared what people wanted for their children,” Peacock said, “and he fulfilled their dreams. That’s why he was so loved.”
Mester survived cancer. He stepped away to heal in 2007, and returned to work June 17, 2008.
While in chemotherapy, he focused on how others are doing. “He didn’t worry about himself, he worried about other people,” Hagen said.
He grounded himself in principles and introspection. When things got exciting, Mester would slow down to reflect, Fox-Bailey said.
Mester hailed from the East Coast.
Bill and Fran Mester, both educators, married 50 years ago. Both advanced in their careers, moving slowly westward over the span of 40 years in education. She survives him.
The last time around, Bill encouraged Fran to seek her next job, and he would follow. She became assistant superintendent in Monroe Public Schools in 2001.
For a year, they lived 500 miles apart, with him living on their 20-acre pasture in Spokane County as the superintendent for Mead’s public school system.
He was selected as Snohomish superintendent in 2002.
“We hired him in July and the teachers went on strike Sept. 1,” Hagen said. “(For) building community, this was his opportunity.”
After negotiating an end to the 21-day teacher’s strike, “Snohomish became a better place than it ever had been,” Fox-Bailey said.
Fox-Bailey wasn’t union president at the time, but was at the table. “(Mester) wasn’t responsible for how we got there (to going on strike), but was responsible for how we got back.”
Bill and Fran each retired in 2016. They spent a few years living in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. About six months ago, the Mesters moved to Baltimore to be closer to their daughter, Hagen said. They also had a son.
Mester did what interested him and struck up conversations without any air of pretense. Imagine this: One summer, a handful of new prospective teachers were readying for their job interviews in the district office and Mester, in street clothes and sandals, randomly stopped and began chatting. ‘What do you think of Snohomish? How do you like the school district?’ He never mentioned he was the superintendent. He wasn’t even doing the interviews. He just wanted to chat, Fox-Bailey said.
Mester embraced a Big Mission to uphold public education’s role in democracy.
Maybe less known is that Mester had a seat at the table among a group of University of Washington experts who advocate that good local schools are a crucial and integral piece for a thriving community. “(Mester’s) intellect and passion was highly thought of” among UW experts such as John Goodlad and Roger Soder, Peacock said.
“It’s easy in superintendency to lose sight of kids .. and Bill never lost sight of why we were there for kids to have a voice,” Peacock said. “It’s all in service to kids.”
Mester taught Brockman to listen closer to others. He taught Peacock to take in all points of view. He influenced a wide number of educators, some of whom today work as superintendents in other school districts.
“The impact of the leadership of a superintendent ... I don’t think people can understand how transformative his leadership was on our district,” Fox-Bailey said.
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