When the formerly retired Suzanne Cusick decided to fill Ashland’s superintendent vacancy for one year on an interim basis last summer, she probably didn’t expect a local sexual assault/social media story to make statewide headlines and lead to a district office sit-in, or a labor dispute to linger so long it would eventually outlast her own tenure, or for the state to rule the district’s talented and gifted program out of compliance.
But in her short time as head of the Ashland School District, all of the above issues and many more came across Cusick’s desk, ensuring that her 12 months at the helm of one of Southern Oregon’s most respected districts would be anything but a quiet ride into the sunset.
Cusick, whose last day was June 16, talked with the Tidings recently about her time in Ashland, what she learned, and what advice she has for the next superintendent, Kelly Raymond, who’s set to take over July 1. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
DT: Taking the superintendent job was sort of a homecoming for you, since you worked in the district previously in the 1980s. In what meaningful ways has the district changed since you left and, conversely, in what ways has it remained the same?
SC: I’ll start with how it stayed the same. I was there from 1981 to 1991 as a music teacher at Lincoln and Walker and the middle school, and what I remember from those days were excellent teachers, very dedicated teaching staff and support staff and that certainly has remained the same. The other thing that is the same was why we moved our family of four children to Ashland in 1981, and that is high expectations on the part of the community — not just parents — that the school district performs at a high level. And the community continues its strong partnership with the schools in so many ways.
What has changed in Ashland and is different is the same thing that’s different in many places across country, and that’s our concern about increased drug and alcohol use. It’s a community problem, not just a school district problem, but we all need to work on that one together. … I’m not saying there were not drugs and alcohol in 1980s — there was. But there appears to be greater use. I also think that (students have) access to stronger drugs.
DT: You worked with dozens of people throughout your year here. Who are some unsung heroes in the district who perhaps don’t get as much credit as they deserve when it comes to making sure students here receive a quality education?
SC: We all admire and acknowledge our principal team. We call it the lead team, and it’s an extremely talented group that does an amazing job running our schools. What is less known to the community is a central office staff that’s incredibly smart and dedicated, and those would include the people in charge of human resources, curriculum and finances. We have a very intelligent and caring board of directors, and I applaud them for their deep, deep commitment. It’s volunteer position and they work tirelessly for all the kids.
DT: It turned out to be quite a year: There was the student sit-in at the district office related to the sexual assault allegations, the labor dispute tied to the transportation work rules and the state ruling that the TAG program was out of compliance. Did it end up being more than you bargained for?
SC: It was more than I expected, yes. Those things were surprising to me but we dealt with them head on. Using the example of the sexual harassment, we convened a community based group that designed our current Title IX sexual harassment plan that’s posted on the web. We publicized it and have a brochure coming out so students know where to go and what to do if they experience sexual harassment. And staff has received additional training, so I’m really proud of the work we did there. That’s the kind of work that’s never finished, but we have good ground work laid.
DT: After all that you’ve heard and seen over the last year, do you believe as some AHS students have suggested, that there’s a culture of sexual violence at AHS? And if so, what can and should your successor do about it?
SC: Well, the successor and all staff as well as community members and parents need to continue to reinforce what we have in our plan, which is that sex harassment in any form is not to be tolerated at all. But, we investigated every single event and some of the claims of sexual violence occurring on campus were not accurate. Every sexual harassment incident that was reported we investigated and dealt with in an appropriate manner. There was a rumor that a rape had occurred on campus. That is not true. Or I should add, unfortunately, if it were true that was never reported to us as having occurred on campus.
DT: When Kamilah Long announced her candidacy for the open school board position she sent out a press release that cited a documented increase in hate speech and hate-related incidents in the district, particularly at AHS. Is that true and if so, what can and should the district leadership do about it
SC: Well, any kind of hate speech, just like sexual harassment, should not be tolerated in any form. I do know that (AHS principal) Erika Bare and her team work diligently and when hate speech is reported to them they investigate and apply appropriate consequences. It’s definitely not to be tolerated in any form.
DT: What do you think is the most important advice, both specifically and philosophically, you can give to Kelly Raymond?
SC: Kelly is a very savvy and skilled administrator and she will do a great job. My advice is to get to know this deeply committed staff at all levels — classified, certified and administrative — and to work very closely with our dynamic community partners. We have wonderful partnerships in the community and they have been a gift to me as I know they will be to Kelly in terms of their support for the school district.
DT: Ten years from now, what do you think you’ll remember most about your one year as interim superintendent in Ashland?
SC: I’m going to remember with a great deal of pleasure. It was a wonderful year for my husband and me. We’re very glad that we had that opportunity. We’re also happy to be back in our home in Portland and reconnecting with our Portland friends. But we remember it already with a great deal of pleasure. It was a wonderful year.
DT: What’s next for you?
SC: I’m going to sit down and play my piano, work in my garden and travel with my husband.
DT: That sounds nice.
SC: Doesn’t it though. I started 51 years ago, so it’s time.
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.