Even-Handed Officiating in Two Arenas by JAY P. GOLDMAN

Twice a week during much of the school year, John Vaara strips off his business attire of the superintendency in favor of a zebra suit, replete with cap and whistle. That’s jargon for the uniform of a sports referee, a second life he leads to ensure fair play in the world.

Vaara’s “day” job, as the top administrator in the 1,100-student Hancock Public Schools in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, has striking relevance to his afterschool pursuit of the past 25 years as a high school and collegiate football and basketball official. Recognizing that both roles carry a lonely status, he finds one plays well off the other.

“People will sometimes ask me, ‘You’re problem solving all day as a superintendent so why do that on a basketball court or a football field?’ I’ll say, ‘Officiating is good for me in this job, and this job is good for my officiating.’”

Adds Vaara, who’s respected enough on the playing field to have been picked to officiate two state championships in high school football: “Knowing how to deal with a coach who’s upset about a call isn’t much different than dealing with a parent upset about a bus problem. … Sometimes you must admit, ‘Yes, I messed up. I can’t get it back for you, but we’ll do better the next time.’”

In the view of his colleagues, the even-tempered Vaara is suited perfectly to excel in both capacities. Jeff Kangas, the middle school principal in Hancock who has known Vaara for nearly 15 years, says the word that best describes his boss is “unflappable.”

“I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen him really stressed,” he says.

Vaara is beginning his 30th year as a professional educator and his 11th as superintendent in Hancock, a rural community 11 hours from Detroit that serves as home to Finlandia University. He was the secondary school principal for the previous five years, which makes him fully appreciate the merit of hiring capable building leaders and then letting them loose to steer their own ships.

“Maybe what I do best is surround myself with talent,” says Vaara. “To succeed in any endeavor as a leader, you must have good people working with and for you. Sometimes to allow these people to flourish, that means you have to get out of their way.”
His own steady hand over the affairs in Hancock has propelled the district to the top of the comprehensive statewide performance ratings that are compiled annually by Standard and Poor’s. In summarizing Hancock’s educational return on its investment, the firm credits the district for achieving “well above-average student results with spending that is comparable to statewide levels.”

S&P also cites the district as one of only three statewide that achieves scores on the state assessment program that are well above the state average despite serving an above-average proportion of economically disadvantaged students.

Vaara attributes some of that high standing to the community’s willingness to approve tax levies twice in a nine-year period to buy bonds to build and renovate school facilities. The second of the levies, which added nearly 4 mills to taxpayer load, was necessitated by one of Vaara’s few major disappointments during his tenure—the lopsided defeat by voters in 1994 of a proposed consolidation with a neighboring district that would have led to a joint building program, expanded course offerings and reduced personnel costs.

Based on the hundreds of planning meetings he attended and informal surveying of the citizenry of both communities, Vaara had expected passage, saying, “We did everything we were supposed to do.”

His chagrin long gone, Vaara remains an upbeat confidante and adviser to fellow superintendents, such as Houghton-Portage Township Superintendent Dennis Harbour, who says he has learned to tolerate Vaara’s love of the trivial, especially in sports.

“He is continually giving me information about the records of this team and that team, and I’m continually telling him that he’s packed full of useless information,” Harbour says.

Jokes local businessman Michael Lahti: “He probably could give you the entire Detroit Tigers infield from the 1960s.”

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: