Bremerton's new Super hits the ground running

 Bremerton schools Superintendent Lester “Flip” Herndon ran cross country and track at Lakes High School in Tacoma during the 1980s. He has run ever since and credits the sport for helping him get to where he is now.  - Courtesy photo
Bremerton schools Superintendent Lester “Flip” Herndon ran cross country and track at Lakes High School in Tacoma during the 1980s. He has run ever since and credits the sport for helping him get to where he is now.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

The flattop hairstyle is gone, but the fire still burns.

Although it’s been three decades since the skinny kid with big hair discovered he could run, childhood memories of the endurance sport don’t escape Bremerton schools Superintendent Lester “Flip” Herndon.

“I ran angry. Anything that happened or didn’t work for me, I would turn that into my fuel or fire,” Herndon said. “Running was an opportunity for me to work things out in my mind. It was just me.”

Herndon, 40, continues to run on a daily basis. Sometimes he jogs to unwind from the rigors of the day, other times it’s to plan or simply collect his thoughts.

Whatever the reason, he credits the sport for giving him confidence and now he fuels the fire with ambition.

“It really is the, ‘OK, I’ve got this meeting coming up. How am I going to prepare for this?’” he said. “It’s that time for me to be alone and do all that.”

Herndon is the son of an African-American father and a white mother and is preparing for part two of his first year as the face of Bremerton schools, a diverse district facing budget cuts under the watch of an almost entirely new school board.

Voters last week approved the district’s levy renewal, giving budget writers some extra money with which to work, but the challenges Herndon faces go beyond money.

“The issue for a new superintendent, always, is getting to know the school district and the people and the programs that are in place,” said DeWayne Boyd, who served on the school board from 2001-09 and was Bremerton’s superintendent from 1987-96. “The whole part of getting acquainted is the main issue.”

Boyd said it takes a “long time” to get acquainted with the people who comprise a school district, but three or four months is enough to learn the issues a district faces.

Among those issues for Bremerton is continuing the progress it has made in early childhood education over the past few years.

Additionally, Herndon must decide how to allocate money during cash-strapped times. There is no surefire solution to doing that, Boyd said, so it’s a matter of working with the school board, staff and community to come up with a solution that will benefit the students.

“The biggest single thing is to be sure the district stays the course to continue improving learning outcomes,” Boyd said.

Herndon was born and raised in Tacoma, working his way through the Clover Park School District and graduating from Lakes High School in 1988.

He started running when he was in fourth grade and quickly discovered a passion for the sport, racing in the Sound of Narrows in Tacoma in 1979. He went on to join the Lakes cross country and track teams and lettered in cross country as a freshman and participated in state championships more than once.

With a wiry frame — he weighed less than 100 pounds up to age 16 — Herndon consistently ran the mile in 4 minutes, 30 seconds.

Those times were strong enough to get him on the cross country and track teams at Whitman College in Walla Walla, where he trained in fields of wheat in 100-degree heat, becoming a three-time all-conference runner.

He moved to the East Coast in the mid-1990s for graduate school at Harvard University, but he continued to run, albeit at a slower pace and less frequently.

At Harvard, Herndon’s athletic interests reached beyond the road and track. He took up ultimate frisbee, played recreational basketball and later turned to coaching youth sports.

Along the way, Herndon strove to not only improve as an athlete, but also to become a leader. If he clocked a slow time on a run, he would go back and ask “why?” Or if he missed a jump shot, he would evaluate his shooting stroke.

“I think in order to be successful, you have to know why you’re being successful,” Herndon said. “Or if you’re not successful, how are you going to be successful the next time?”

Herndon remembers his time as a student-teacher in inner-city Boston and later as a teacher in Stamford, Conn., where he was exposed to students and teachers from most spectrums.

That diversity was something he appreciated, and finding a diverse school district was one of his priorities during his search for a superintendent job.

Bremerton fit the bill: About 59 percent of Bremerton students are white, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“As much as you can, it’s great to have a staff that is reflective of your community,” Herndon said.

A regular attendee of Washington Association of School Administrators meetings during his time as assistant superintendent of Tacoma Schools, Herndon remembers the crowd being predominantly white.

In 2007-08, 94.72 percent of the state’s superintendents were white, according to the Office of Superintendent, and less than 1 percent — 0.39 — were black.

“I know that in my position, and being the person I am, I’m very different,” Herndon said.

But it’s been a relatively smooth first year for the man who replaced Bette Hyde.

Much of the slate has been wiped clean from the Hyde tenure — three of the five school board members are new this year — and those who remain prefer to look forward instead of back.

“We have a new board and a new superintendent and I think it would be unfair to go back,” said board member Vicki Collins, who is one of two holdovers from Hyde’s tenure. “I definitely think we’ve turned the corner and are headed for great things.”

Still, the district faces the unpleasant likelihood of budget cuts.

How deep those cuts will be, and where they will be made, depends on the ongoing Legislative session in Olympia. Last year the district reduced its budget by about 8 percent, Herndon said, and the budget will be even smaller this year.

Collins emphasized Herndon isn’t very far into what may or may not be a long tenure, and it’s impossible to know what will happen in the coming months. But she has been impressed with his dedication and ability to bring people together.

She said he listens to everyone, no matter who they are, and for that he should be commended.

“He is a collaborator, a rising star, in my opinion,” she said.

Now Herndon focuses on “completion” rather than “speed” when he runs, completing four-, five- and six-mile loops around Bremerton. His oldest son, who is 10, recently picked up the sport and is already running the mile in less than seven minutes.

The father of three completed his first full marathon last spring in Eugene, Ore., accomplishing his goal of finishing the race in less than four hours.

Exactly where his running leads to next remains to be seen, but for now, Herndon is focused on bettering Bremerton’s schools.

At the halfway mark of his proverbial first season, the race is only beginning.

“To me success is, ‘Is your team better at the end of the year?”

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