Profile: Mary Ann Ranells

Shedding Distractions to Forge Ahead
BY JOETTA SACK-MIN/School Administrator, June 2019

Mary Ann Ranells

SCHOOL DISTRICTS in Idaho are typically not described as suburban, diverse and fast-growing. Yet Mary Ann Ranells, superintendent of the West Ada School District near Boise, manages those challenges and more in her 42,000-student district.

In her three years in West Ada, Ranells, one of four finalists for AASA’s 2019 National Superintendent of the Year, has built dual-credit programs, professional learning communities and choice schools and programs focusing on International Baccalaureate, the arts and STEM.

The school district is proud of its 54 career and technical programs and the fact that 160 students graduated last spring with associates’ degrees plus high school diplomas.

Ranells pulls this off with an extremely tight budget, about $5,200 per student, in a district that faces constant competition from about nine charter and private schools near the district’s base in Meridian.

She previously worked as a curriculum director, federal programs director, principal and teacher, sometimes concurrently, at smaller Idaho districts, as well as a stint at the Idaho Department of Education. Through these experiences, she takes on the status quo, has learned to embrace change and leans into discomfort. In West Ada, she notes, “We don’t say ‘problems.’ We have ‘luscious challenges.’ It makes you think about it differently.”

Known for her inclination toward candor, Ranells says her no-holds-barred job interview at West Ada became a “great discussion” about the district’s mission and the board’s vision. She was most upfront about one stipulation: She, not the school board, had to be the boss. Once hired, she immediately reworked the organizational chart to put students at the top and the board at the bottom to emphasize that everyone in the district supports students.

She created three goal areas: family, staff and community engagement; safe and supportive schools; and academic success. Ranells asked West Ada staff and stakeholders to discuss how the actual work of the district matched its mission, vision, values and goals.

This type of engagement is particularly important because the district frequently needs support to pass bond measures to keep up with its growth, she says. West Ada has built 23 new schools in the last 20 years and is constructing a new high school and elementary school, plus expanding three schools, currently.

What’s driving this growth? Ranells says she meets many families from California, Texas and other metropolitan areas who relocated seeking a change of pace. Britteny Gardner, a parent and president of West Ada’s education foundation, believes the quality of schools draws many families to settle specifically in West Ada.

Ranells has gotten to know the community and formed strong connections in a relatively short time, Gardner says, noting the superintendent “makes people feel special when they interact with her. She has an open-door policy and listens to feedback from community members and staff.”

That style of communication was needed last year to help rebuild relationships when a local court ruled unconstitutional the cash-strapped district’s practice of charging student fees for credit-bearing courses. Another tough topic has been redistricting, a constant stressor due to the district’s 19 percent enrollment growth over the past 10 years.

Ranells draws some lessons from the harsh experiences: “Avoid the status quo, avoid gossip and avoid pessimists.” And in the end, she adds, “Keep a relentless focus on kids.”

JOETTA SACK-MIN is an education freelance writer in Falls Church, Va. Twitter: @jsackmin


Currently: superintendent, West Ada Joint School District 2, Meridian, Idaho

Previously: superintendent, Lakeland Joint School District, Rathdrum, Idaho

Age: 68

Greatest influences on career: What I call “Bob to the Third Power” — Bob Ranells, my husband of 48 years; Bob Eaker, a mentor who introduced me to Rick DuFour; and Bob Marzano, who trained me on “Tactics for Teaching Thinking” more than 30 years ago.

Best professional day: Aug. 21, 2017, our first day back to school for all employees. We claimed the day of the solar eclipse as a day of “syzygy” in West Ada, celebrating our commitment to alignment. Four thousand employees gathered at a football stadium, all wearing yellow T-shirts and safety sunglasses.

Books at bedside: Developing Assessment-Capable Visible Learners by Nancy Frey, John Hattie and Douglas Fisher; Dare to Lead by Brené Brown; and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Why I’m an AASA member: I love to learn and love to learn from my colleagues. They share what is real, difficult and promising. The connections have been priceless.