Tuesday, December 12, 2017

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Search for New School Superintendent Elicits Suggestions by Parents

The Secaucus Board of Education sponsored a forum at Huber Street School on the evening of February 15 to which parents, community members, and district staff and faculty were invited. Although it was a board-sponsored event, none of the nine trustees was present nor were any of the school principals or the school superintendent. Approximately fifty individuals filled the elementary school gym—parents of school-age children, current and former teachers, one former school trustee (Tom Troyer), and school board staff, including Grace Yeo, the business administrator and secretary. The purpose of the session was to gather input from the community in regard to the search for a new superintendent of schools to replace interim Superintendent Kenneth J. Knops. (Knops, theoretically, could serve until November 2017, but it would behoove the board to have a new superintendent in place for the start of the 2017-18 school year in September.) The board recently hired a firm that searches for potential superintendents, and the two principals of Leadership Advantage—Michael Osnato and Michael Kuchar—conducted the session on February 15. Both men are long-term educators, former principals and superintendents in their own right. (Mr. Kuchar is not related to the Kuchar family who were teachers in the Secaucus district.) Grace Yeo welcomed all to the gathering and introduced Mr. Osnato and Mr. Kuchar.

The men offered that they had been hired by approximately eighty other districts to conduct superintendent searches. “We assist in the process. We look for a good fit between the school district and the candidate.” Kuchar listed three main criteria they address in their search: (1) the strengths of the district and community, (2) the perceived weaknesses of the district and community, and (3) the characteristics and traits the school superintendent should possess. “We need to build a profile,” Kuchar, former superintendent of the Bergenfield district, stressed. Osnato, former superintendent of the Montclair district, explained that in the past, they would have had a pool of between seventy and eighty applicants to choose from, but since Gov. Christie imposed a cap on superintendents’ salaries several years ago, the pool has shrunk to about twenty-five to thirty-five potential candidates. However, the men offered that the salary cap would rise by approximately $15,000 to $20,000 in March. “It will be a little better.” They stated that ultimately the search in Secaucus would narrow down to eight to ten “good” people. Their firm advertises in newspapers and other trade sources for candidates. “We make aware the opening.”

Tom Troyer, a school trustee for a total of fifteen years, commented that he would like to see the new superintendent come from within the Secaucus district. Another resident who identified himself as a product of the local district remarked that he values having “locals” hired as teachers and in other capacities, and that he would also like to see classes such as woodworking, drafting, and auto mechanics reintroduced into the curriculum. These two residents were just a few of the many audience members who expressed their concerns about the district, education in general, and what they would like to see in the new superintendent. Osnato and Kuchar opened the session to the audience, stressing that hearing from concerned residents and parents was the main objective of the evening. They also explained the absence of school board members at the meeting, stating that they had met both individually and collectively with the entire nine-member board. “We will strongly consider internal candidates,” was Kuchar’s response to Troyer’s wish, adding that the school board makes the final decision on whom to hire. They also explained that two of the nine local trustees would not be able to vote for the new superintendent because they have relatives who are district employees. While Joe Lewis and Lance Bartletta cannot vote, they are included in all discussions about the potential candidate.

One woman in the audience was concerned that the new superintendent “does their job — makes moves” that might not be popular. “We need a superintendent who embraces parental involvement,” she added. A man sitting with his wife and young child remarked that looking for a superintendent today is not the same as it was forty years ago. “We need a progressive, forward-thinking, tech-savvy superintendent who has shown an ability to modernize schools [and not just maintain the status quo].” In an apparent nod to his youngster, he added that education today must address the job needs of the future generation — “jobs for 2025.” Another resident felt that students in Secaucus High School get better grades than those in the elementary schools. “We should learn from the high school.” Yet another parent was dismayed that students were not fluent in a second language. “Middle school students should be able to speak a second language,” she opined.

Several audience members were chagrined that attendance at the session was relatively sparse. Kuchar and Osnato allayed their dismay, stating that they have held similar sessions at much larger districts and have had only two or three residents show up. Both men praised what they felt was a good showing for a relatively small district. “Tonight’s attendance is good compared to other large districts.” They called Secaucus a “desirable district, financially light years ahead [of other districts]. “The financial stability makes for an attractive job.” The former superintendents heaped praise on interim Superintendent Knops. Osnato said he knew Knops for many years. “He’s experienced and knows how to deal with people.” An audience member praised the “open door policy” she said Knops ushered in when he was hired as interim superintendent in November 2015. “Superintendent Knops is a breath of fresh air.” The resident also voiced concern that not enough of the district staff was “computer savvy.”

The first resident to speak (and she spoke several times during the session) offered that when she moved to Secaucus it was “a small town close to New York City,” and now, even though “it’s growing so rapidly, it’s kept its small town feel.” She very enthusiastically announced, “I love the diversity in the town.” She noted the availability of after school educational programs and private businesses (i.e., Accel) that offer additional educational options to students. Another mom said she had two children in Huber Street School and looked to “foster community involvement.” (She was one of the residents who was disappointed by what she felt was poor attendance at the meeting.) She offered that all the school principals “are excellent.” Yet another mother remarked that not all parents could afford to take advantage of after school programs or classes at private learning centers and wished that the district could offer expanded classes. She added, however, that she felt the district has “good teachers.” Former school trustee Troyer noted that the board would like to be able to offer additional programs and courses, but that “it costs money.”

Another mother raised concerns that students learn about “real life.” She commented that the school superintendent be able “to see what other people cannot see.” “We expect our leader to have vision and that vision must align with the district.” She asserted that students are “not prepared for life” when they graduate high school. “Do you have vision? We need to encourage creative thinking.” The well-spoken parent complained that sometimes the educational experience is just “getting through the next test.” An audience member asked Kuchar and Osnato what the criteria is for a school superintendent. They responded, “Evidentiary success, a doctorate would be a plus, and central office experience.” Maryann Pollio, a former district elementary school teacher, asked the men what they considered a “successful” superintendent. Kuchar said, “One that is able to work with the school board. They’re [the board] your boss. The superintendent runs the district in support of the board.” He definitively added, “A successful superintendent puts the children first. That is a successful superintendent.”

LeaAnn Nicolich, a member of the board office staff, took umbrage with other parents’ opinions that the district doesn’t offer enough to its students. She noted that her daughter attends Secaucus High School and is applying to colleges around the nation. “My daughter holds her own with other students” when they visit potential colleges. She praised the faculty, administrators, and staff for the excellent education provided to local children.

Osnato and Kuchar advised that a “superintendent’s survey” has been posted on the district website (www.sboe.org). They urged residents (one need not be a parent of school-age children) to take a few minutes and fill out the survey.

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