Friday, February 28, 2003
Two candidates remain in superintendent search Third finalist Mary Jennings withdraws
After many months, the search for a new superintendent for the Concord Public Schools and the Concord-Carlisle Regional High School was down to three finalists. A 22-member search committee, working with search consultant James Walsh, had selected the three women from a pool of 25 local and national applicants. All had experience as superintendents of schools.
On February 10,12 and 13 the three candidates were interviewed individually by the regional school committee and the public was invited to participate. The following week, however, one of the three, Mary Jennings, currently the superintendent of the Groton-Dunstable Schools, withdrew her application. According to RSC chair Betsy Bilodeau, Jennings did not give reasons for her withdrawal.
Questions from RSC members probed the applicant's leadership style, educational philosophy, and experience in managing difficult situations, especially when they involve educators, parents and the public at times of budget constraints. Excerpts of their answers are below.
Brenda Doherty Finn
Brenda Finn Doherty of Long-meadow, Massachusetts, is currently the superintendent of the Gill-Montague Regional School System, which has an enrollment of 1,530 and a district budget of $13.7 million. She holds graduate degrees in English and counseling and a doctorate in leadership from UMass.
What unique qualities would you bring to this position?
"You cannot be a teacher of teachers and not have demonstrated a commitment to scholarship.Teachers need to be scholars ..in their own disciplinesAnd at the same time they need a good grasp of the day-to-day practical things, communication skills, and the ability to work with town committees to get the necessary fiscal resources."
When visiting a classroom, what do you look for to know that good teaching and learning are occurring?
"You can tell from the look of the classroom. Students are focusedThere is a level of energy and a real interchange between teacher and student or among studentsThe teacher uses many methods: small group learning, individual work, demonstrations, portfolios and hands-on projects."
Our district faces serious financial challenges. How have you dealt with similar situations in your current district, strategically and practically?
"I have tried to establish some 'principles,' such as on class size in the elementary school, to guide budget decision making. [It is important] to make decisions in a collaborative fashion, including the district and the school faculty." Asked for an example of a program that she cut, she pointed to a tutoring position when there was no evidence of progress on standardized tests after two years.
What do you expect of your school committee?
"[I hope that school committee members] put the childrens' needs first.That they are open, honest, courageous and respectful in dissentIf they ask me to do something politically unpopular, I expect their support."
MAK Mitchell, of Seattle, is currently the director of community learning for the Seattle Public Schools. From 1991 to 1997 she served as the superintendent of the Shoreline Schools , a K -12 district of 10,400 students in the Puget Sound area. She holds degrees in English and education from Harvard University.
How would you describe your leadership style?
"[I am] a visionary that sees the future and its potential. [My style] is "participatory, listening to voices and culture... As a superintendent I seek out input from principals and staff and spend 40-60% of my time in classrooms. The role of a superintendent is a primary engager of all stakeholders."
In hiring teachers, how do you define "talent?"
"I look for people that have thought through their beliefs and values and 'walk the talk,' have thought about learning have deep convictions, are well-read, are powerful evaluators of others, and provide good follow-up."
How do you deal with differences in opinion internally?
"I like to be challenged by voices who disagree with me and have reasons. They keep you honest, authentic, and force you to confront reality[In one situation] the one dissenting voice had some answers."
How do you deal with fiscal difficulties?
"How you frame [the issue] is critical. It is important to instill hope for the future. I try to remind the teachers that true greatness has everything to do with relationships; it has nothing to do with money." Staff, principals, parents will be uncomfortable. I'm a realist at cutting budgets."
What do you expect from the school board?
" I expect the board to set policy, be a primary partner in engaging the public, create a cohesive plan, and consider the question what does it mean to be well-educated in today's world."
"Bad things happen
to good superintendents"
As audience participation was invited, Concord teacher Bob Lemaire stated that Seattle newspapers had reported in1997 that Mitchell's contract as Shoreline superintendent was bought out by the school committee, following two votes of no confindence. He asked the applicant to comment on this report and "what insights you gained from this experience."
Mitchell responded that the the legislature asked for a mid-term $2.4 million cut in the school budget. "A good number of people would have lost their jobs and the [school] board and the [teachers'] union were not able to deal with it. It became just too emotional," she recalled. At the same time, the board was weakened by loss of two members who had been leaders. "I felt the board did not defend me as they should. ..Although the legislature eventually reduced the cuts to only $0.4 million, everyone was very upset." Mitchell said she offered to resign.
Contacted later, RSC chair Betsy Bilodeau defended Mitchell, commenting that she had a "stellar reputation" prior to this controversy. Bilodeau also disputed the report in the Concord Journal that the search committee and the school committee were unaware of the applicant's job history. She said the committee's had been told of Mitchell's background and were satisfied with her explanation.
The final step in the search process is a site visit to each candidate's home district. Usually the visits are made by a team including two RSC members, one teacher, one principal and one parent. Because of travel cost, probably only three members will make the trip to Seattle. Bilodeau said she will go at her own expense and take the opportunity to visit a friend.
Mosquito reporter Priscilla Stevens contributed to this story.
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito