Local Leader Marcia Harris Retires After Four Decades in Education

Her career in education has come to an end but Marcia Harris continues to serve the common good.

Marcia Harris, right, with Leslie Harbaugh at their last PSD board meeting Dec. 12.
Marcia Harris, right, with Leslie Harbaugh at their last PSD board meeting Dec. 12. Photo: Aimee Gordon, Peninsula School District

After 41 years in education including four years on the board of the Peninsula School District, Marcia Harris is retiring from education. For the second time.

“I’ve had some amazing experiences and been supported by many people along the way,” she said. “Nobody does this alone.”

Her career took her from Olympia to Yakima, Moses Lake to Chimacum and Shoreline, and twice to the Peninsula School District. A longtime Key Peninsula resident, she remains active on the KP Community Council, serves on the board of KP Community Services, oversees the free KP Connects school bus service, is an active member of the Gig Harbor Rotary Club, and volunteers as a master gardener.

Harris was born in Alpena, Michigan, and graduated from high school in Muskegon. “We lived in a few different places; my dad worked for the phone company for over 40 years,” she said. “He actually started delivering telegrams when he was 14.”

After earning a degree in English at Kansas State University in 1970, Harris went to work in the insurance industry.

“I was sort of on the leading edge of women going into that field as a marketing rep and it put me in a management training program,” she said.

The company sent her to work in Fresno, California, where she met Jeff Harris, who was a city planner. In 1973, he was set to return to Washington and she was transferred to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Instead, Harris left her job and the two were married in 1974.

“Insurance was in the basement then, it was a bad time, and I wanted to work.” Harris said. She took some state tests and qualified as a financial analyst “because of my English degree,” and was hired at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

While working at OSPI in Olympia, Harris also attended night school to earn a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. “An MBA is very useful regardless of what you want to go into,” she said.

A chance to test that theory came in 1980 when she learned of a job opening at a small school district having financial troubles in the Yakima Valley.

“I thought I could apply for this job and I probably wouldn’t make it worse,” she said.

“It speaks to me about how quickly our students grow up and what little time we have to give them just some of the skills they need.”

Harris became the assistant superintendent in a small district of 550 students for half the year that grew to 800 at springtime, when people arrived to work the harvest.

“What they wanted in the worst way was for their kids to get an education and to learn to speak English,” she said. “They were so passionate about it that it really taught me a lot about what it meant to be an American, people doing that for their children and grandchildren. It was an incredible education.”

In 1983, Harris moved to a district of 5,500 students in Moses Lake that needed a business manager.

“They also needed a serious financial turnaround,” she said. “But there were some great leadership opportunities, and while I was there I enrolled in a doctoral program at Gonzaga in educational leadership. Jesuit education is fascinating; they truly believe there’s no one right answer.”

Harris earned a superintendent’s credential and planned to spend a year working on her dissertation while searching for a superintendent position, but she got the first job she applied for and moved to Chimacum in 1989, leaving no time to finish her dissertation. “I got pretty close,” she said.

Chimacum had 1,100 students when she arrived and had just passed a construction bond. “My first day on the job I started building a school like I knew how,” Harris said. Five years later, the district had opened a new elementary school, improved existing facilities, and added almost 400 students. “I felt like I went to a district that was in the 1950s but when I left we were moving into the 21st century.”

Harris still keeps a memento from those days created by a former student, a small horseshoe welded together out of two pieces of smooth, silver metal seamlessly joined at the apex of the curve.

“He was a troubled kid,” she said. “He had an ankle bracelet and was spending part of each day in jail. He went to the skill center in Bremerton and was doing welding and that (horseshoe) is, as I understand it, a perfect weld. Here was a kid that looked like a loser from everything you saw, and yet he had a real talent that brought him to another level.

“That’s been on my desk since 1993,” she said. “It speaks to me about how quickly our students grow up and what little time we have to give them just some of the skills they need to have a rich and productive life.”

"I tried to build things for people to tap into and not have to reinvent the wheel."

Harris got a call from the Peninsula School District in 1995.

“They were in serious financial trouble; they’d had four levy failures,” she said. “They were asking kids to bring reams of paper to school to run copies. It was pretty horrible.” She was offered a job as deputy superintendent. “It looked like I had pretty much finished what I wanted to do in Chimacum, so I took it on.”

Harris found a host of problems. “There were 16 (state) audit findings, which was the worst any school district had ever experienced,” she said. “We had leaking roofs, we had ancient technology, the phone system didn’t work, Purdy Elementary needed to be totally rebuilt; at Harbor Ridge we had money to do half of what had been promised back in the early ’90s.”

The district created a sustainable maintenance program and negotiated takebacks from staff. “We were in good shape and passed a bond in 2003 for construction,” Harris said. “I had all of the Human Resources, all of the finance, all of the maintenance and capital projects under my umbrella. That’s not something you can just walk away from — I tried to build things for people to tap into and not have to reinvent the wheel. I knew that the people who were there could carry on; they knew how to do more than their jobs.”

In 2006, Harris was asked to become the deputy superintendent in the Shoreline District. “They were 2.7 million dollars in the red, which is totally unacceptable,” she said. “We had to close schools. We had to make cuts that were sustainable because the money wasn’t coming back. That was a very, very tough job.”

But voters eventually passed two bonds to simultaneously replace two new high schools.

“That was unbelievable,” Harris said. “I worked with really good people — the principals were great; the project managers were great. There’s a little dislocation, but when you see things start to happen and schools come out of the ground, suddenly people can roll with the punches.”

She and her husband Jeff moved to the Key Peninsula when she took the job at Peninsula in 1995, and rather than move to Shoreline when she worked there, Harris commuted every weekend.

“It was only with Jeff’s continued support that our lives were able to grow through our journeys across the state,” she said. “We wouldn’t live anywhere else. We just love the eclectic nature of the people out here. We’re always learning something new from the people around us.”

Harris retired in 2012, but that didn’t last long. Within a month of retiring, she was invited to a meeting to help organize a new local bus service called KP Connects to replace the public transportation lost to county cutbacks. A month after that she was running for the KP Community Council. Two years later she joined the board of KP Community Services.

In 2014, Harris started looking for someone to run in the race for the Peninsula School Board. It ended up being her.

“It’s different on the other side of the board room table,” she said as a former PSD employee.

“Maintenance is one of the drums I’ve been beating on since I came back. You need to have a maintenance plan; you need to be working on a cycle of sustainability. To me it’s a matter of good stewardship. I’m not trying to be critical, the finances make the realities,” she said.

After one four-year term on the board, Harris stepped down Dec. 12.

“I really did some soul-searching to decide whether I was going to run again,” she said. “It feels good to have passed a bond (in 2019).”

Harris plans to continue volunteering in her current positions on the KP. She and her husband have also been active members in the Rotary Club of Gig Harbor and other branches since 1989, advocating for their communities and raising funds for local projects.

“I kind of grew up doing things and giving back,” she said. “My grandma said about volunteering, ‘Giving back is the rent you pay for the space you take up while you’re on Earth.’ ”