Six people give lots of input at superintendent-search meeting

by Dennis Dalman

Was it the dreary, drizzly night? Was it because people have unbounded confidence in their school district? Or was it because residents decided to fill out a superintendent search questionnaire via the district’s website?

Are those the reasons only six people showed up for the superintendent-search public meeting at Sartell High school Oct. 15? Well, maybe. Who knows?

But not to worry, said Greg Vandal, meeting facilitator. As a consultant Vandal, former superintendent of the Sauk Rapids-Rice School District, has helped in six superintendent searches in various Minnesota districts. At one public meeting, only one person showed up. Sparse attendance is not untypical, and it does not mean people do not care about their school districts, he said.

Vandal is a consultant with “School Exec Connect,” along with Dr. Ken Dragseth, former Edina superintendent. The two men are working with the Sartell-St. Stephen School District to facilitate the search for a superintendent to replace Dr. Joseph Hill, who resigned earlier this year.

Dragseth and Vandal had a very busy Oct. 15. They met all day with groups of people: city officials from both Sartell and St. Stephen, teachers, interns, support staff, administrators, members of the Sartell-St. Stephen Foundation and other school organizations. At noon they met with 10 students for lunch at the high school. They gathered input from those “stakeholder” groups that will be shared with the school board, as will be the input gathered from the six people at the Oct. 15 meeting.

The board expects to choose a new superintendent by mid-February, one who can begin his or her job July 1, 2014.

At the meeting, Vandal had a copy of the five-question survey Sartell residents can fill out online on the district’s website. He asked the six people to give verbal input for each question. The six people either have or have had students in the Sartell-St. Stephen School District.

The following are brief summaries of the results.

1. List the most important goals for your school district to achieve in the next three years. Participants offered the following: infrastructure and revenue for the programs; preparing students for the world, and that includes advanced technology, retaining excellence while keeping an eye on the bill; keep class sizes in mind, with optimal student-teacher ratios; make sure the school buildings don’t get to the point where they’re bursting at the seams; and keep steady track of growth patterns in the district, and always keep a step ahead of spurts of growth by preparing for them.

2. List your district’s greatest strengths/attributes for achieving the above goals: One attendee said, community support in good times and bad. Referendums, for example, pass with relative ease compared to many other districts. Parents give tremendous support, attending school events and being involved. The recent “Toast to Autumn” fundraiser for the Education Foundation was packed with participants. A recent band concert also attracted a huge audience. Another said, the teachers and staff are wonderful – several of the six said how excellent the teachers are. Others said the teachers are focused on high academic achievements, and it shows – that doesn’t “just happen;” the extracurricular programs are superb, with something for everyone, from athletics to the arts and everything in between; and the administrators are topnotch and care about what they do – they are second to none.

3. List your district’s greatest challenges/barriers for achieving the goals in question 1. The small group offered the following: economic pressures; the ability to attract and maintain the best teachers and staff, with enough pay to keep them here; the tax base in the Sartell area must keep up with growth including always keeping a close watch on variations within the trajectories of growth; not becoming reactionary about growth issues and making sure facilities plans are in place and updated; no one can control or predict how many people (and students) will move to Sartell, St. Stephen and the general area; and don’t look too far afield for a superintendent candidate when current school administrators might be ideal, especially since they thoroughly know the school district and its residents. Current administrators Greg Johnson and Eric Martins would be excellent superintendents, one man stated. What they lack in superintendent experience they could learn if the board allows them to develop their considerable talents.

4. Describe the most important characteristics/skills the next superintendent needs to possess to be successful. The person must be accountable to the school board, but should not be micromanaged – the board and the superintendent should learn to understand when each should lead; good business skills since the district is much like a corporation; good interpersonal skills and expertise in computers and social media in order to communicate with people in the district; an ability to challenge the current system, excellent as it is, to take it to even higher levels of achievement; a willingness to work with teachers and students through mutual respect; open and honest communication; be visible in the community by attending events, both city and school-related ones; a knack for being a good “salesperson;” an ability to understand boundaries as to when and who should make decisions; when a decision is made, especially by only one person, that decision should be thoroughly explained to everyone in the district so people aren’t left guessing in the dark; and the superintendent should help educate people as to what a superintendent’s job description requires.

5. What questions/areas would you like the school board to ask candidates as they select the superintendent? What is your vision for the future?, Why should we hire you?, What are your weaknesses and how would you improve them?, How would you spend your first six months on the job?, What is your definition for success in a school district?, If we were to ask people randomly in the street within your last school district, what would they say about the job you did? and Are you looking to move further ahead and reach greater heights somewhere else eventually?

Other comments included the following: A good superintendent must make an extra effort to learn about the community and to connect with it in every way possible; just because a candidate is outside the city does not necessarily make her or him an “expert,” experience and knowledge of the community are essential.

Vandal noted that typically a district will receive anywhere from 25 to 30 superintendent applicants. Six to eight of those will probably be worthy of further interest, and from those about two or three will become finalists. Vandal emphasized the selection will be solely the school board’s responsibility. He and Dragseth will be facilitators only and will not be involved in the interview process.

The school district should be grateful Mike Spanier agreed to serve as interim superintendent as that will give the board enough time to find a good superintendent. If they had been forced to up the time, it would not have been adequate, and thus Spanier saved the day, Vandal said.

photo by Dennis Dalman
Greg Vandal, facilitator, leads a discussion about the search for a new superintendent for the Sartell-St. Stephen School District. Although only six people attended the meeting, they came up with lots of input.

Dennis Dalman

Dennis Dalman

Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.
Dennis Dalman
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