The conversation between Joan Ressa and Linda Uphus takes place throughout most of the day from a distance of about 20 feet.
In her patriotically themed principal’s office at Liberty Lake Elementary, Uphus keeps track of happenings at the school by checking in regularly with Ressa, who has been entrenched as secretary/gatekeeper since the campus opened in 1998.
“Joan is the heart of this school,” said Uphus, who took over for Dennis Olson as principal in 2004 after serving in the same capacity at CVSD’s Chester Elementary for seven years. “She definitely helps me to be successful.”
Liberty Lake Elementary will be losing two veteran employees of the school to retirement at the end of the year as head secretary Joan Ressa (left) and principal Linda Uphus step down. The pair will leave the Central Valley School District after a combined 64 years in education. Photo by Craig Howard
The environment at Central Valley’s easternmost site will be a little different this autumn as Ressa and Uphus have announced they will both retire in June. Overall, Ressa has worked 28 years in the district with stops at McDonald Elementary for five years and Chester for 10 years before arriving in Liberty Lake.
Uphus and Ressa were teamed up at Chester for one year during Linda’s seven-year tenure as principal there. Uphus began her career in education as a fifth-grade teacher in Republic before spending six years as an instructor at University Elementary. The transition to an administrative role took place at Sunrise Elementary, where she spent the final four years of a 16-year stay as principal.
At 670 students, Liberty Lake Elementary is the fourth largest school in the district, trailing only Central Valley and University high schools and Greenacres Middle School. The incorporation of Liberty Lake as a city in 2001 has meant more families moving into the area as well as more diversity, Ressa said.
“The new city and new community has brought in a variety of cultures,” she said. “We do our best to make sure everyone feels welcome.”
That inclusive atmosphere includes students with physical or mental challenges.
“You would never know those kids have issues with the way they are treated here,” Uphus said.
Uphus, a resident of the Liberty Lake area since 1968, has also witnessed a series of dramatic changes on the eastern fringe of Spokane County. She recalls a time when the only visible commercial lights came from a small gas station on Appleway Road that is now surrounded by a bustling retail hub.
While the property for a new campus in Liberty Lake was secured by the district years ago, the votes necessary to construct a school have been another story. Uphus called the ballot shortfalls for capital facilities funding – including the latest one earlier this year – “disappointing.”
“I don’t see it as a cost,” she said. “I see it as an investment.”
School officials have forged on despite the election failures, working with district leadership to make the best of the situation. In one area of the school, a multipurpose area has been turned into a classroom while outside, a pair of classrooms now stand where a covered playground once stood.
“The important thing is having systems in place that maintain order,” Uphus said.
Uphus gives Ressa credit for the level of respect she allots to all who drop by the front desk, emphasizing that the interaction is the “first impression people have of our school.” Ressa is also responsible for all the building and grounds scheduling at the 18-acre campus.
“We try to take care of everyone who walks through that door,” Uphus said.
Ressa and Uphus say they didn’t discuss the prospect of retirement beforehand, although Joan’s husband, Don, is walking away as a teacher from University High School after 40 years with the Central Valley School District. Uphus concedes that “it will be tough for us both to leave this school.”
As for the pageantry surrounding the pair’s official exit next month, Ressa and Uphus are downplaying the event, although an assembly is scheduled.
After all their contributions to the school and the district, CVSD spokeswoman Melanie Rose said the standard gold watch retirement gift may fall short.
“It’s difficult to honor all the years of commitment they’ve had to the district,” Rose said. “They’ve been integral to the success of Liberty Lake Elementary and a valued part of our community.”