Behind the scenes in the headhunt for Romero’s replacement
An ancient Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times.”
These times could hardly be more interesting for the Mammoth Unified School District. On top of an ongoing state budget crisis that has educators walking on eggshells, MUSD has had its own spate of local problems. Mammoth High School’s football program is regrouping from a disappointing season last year in which a Varsity team couldn’t be fielded. And a mix of retirements (MHS Principal Mike Agnitch) and resignations (Superintendent Dr. Frank Romero) has left staffing holes to be filled.
One of the most critical posts to fill, no doubt, is that of district superintendent. Steering the MUSD ship through rough, state-churned budget waters, while managing to continue development of the district’s educational programs is a balancing act requiring many qualities. Finding just the right person to take over once interim Superintendent Rich McAteer’s contract runs out this summer is considered by many to be Job 1 for the Board of Education. Helping the Board seek recruits for the post is Leadership Associates’ Richard Thome, who specializes in headhunting for education administrators. Thome spent all day this past Monday meeting with various stakeholders, including teachers, parent groups and town leaders to collect input on what they’d like to see in their new superintendent.
His last meeting of that day was “lightly attended,” with just three residents sitting down to meet with Thome, McAteer and Board member Jack Farrell. The unfettered, more intimate setting did, however, allow for an uninhibited flow of qualities and idea not watered down by a large turnout. “If there were a lead candidate the public was passionate about, they’d pack the place,” McAteer opined as the session kicked into gear.
At the outset, Thome said he already had gathered plenty of the standard, basic “honest” and “trustworthy” items and was looking for more specific input. Apart from the district’s changing demographics, he said personnel management experience could be key. “You’ve got some new staff here, people in new positions, and a new County superintendent coming,” Thome pointed out. McAteer added he thought it valuable to have someone adaptable to the requirements of the lifestyle here. “It’s a small community. You’ll make decisions affecting kids, then see them and their parents at the market the next day,” McAteer said.
Parents said they’d like someone who’d look at expanding MUSD’s Dual Immersion programs beyond the 5th grade. Parents also favored approachability and consensus building skills, especially in a community with “strong personalities.” They also wanted a “visionary,” but one who can bring those visions to fruition, not a “pie in the sky” person with questionable follow-through. Better coordination between the three schools was also suggested.
All too aware of the budget snafu plaguing the Eastern Sierra Unified School District, financial discipline and acumen was a skill at the top of at least one list, along with exceptional communication skills. Say what you like about Dr. Romero, he kept his eye on the budgetary ball and was open and proactive about fiscal challenges, all agreed. The ideal choice, they agreed, should be someone who, a la Romero, works closely with District Finance Director Jim Maxey on creative solutions, and doesn’t just dump the responsibility on him. This is where the “visionary” quality was tempered with a need for some realism. “You have to be able to articulate what you want within fiscal realities,” McAteer summed up.
Two of the parents said they are sitting on the fence about whether they’ll stick around to put their kids through high school, saying they have options that could mean placing those students in other Southern California schools. “Come on, give Gabe [Solorio, newly-appointed MHS principal] a chance,” Farrell quipped jovially. Parents indicated they’re not pushing the panic button just yet, but said the district needs someone that will foster “staff development,” which Thome observed hasn’t come up here as much as in other school districts.
Other concerns included keeping up with evolving technology and promoting foreign languages that can lead to more international post-baccalaureate opportunities.
Also discussed was how the new administrator would help draft a “General Plan” for the district, with perhaps a five-year timeline, which Farrell indicated MUSD might not have in any formal sense.
McAteer thought the new candidate should be “someone who can set expectations and know what best practices are.” Parents took that point one further, adding that person should also ideally know how to get better scores from hard learners, as well as those already doing well. Farrell brought up calibrating standards. “They’re being met, but often are defaulting [three grade levels] too low. It’s a systemic problem, not just here,” he said.
That point led to qualities involving transitioning graduates to colleges. “Other districts may place an emphasis on going to college, but it’s not a collective concern here. Maybe among some specific groups, but not with the collective,” McAteer said. Citing that only about 25 percent of college students actually finish anyway, he added that graduates could be very successful without college educations.
“Los Angeles Unified School District has high schools that will match Long Beach [college acceptance percentages],” McAteer said. “Kids can also go to MHS and go on to college. They have some disadvantages, yes, but also advantages in other areas. If we have the collective will in the community, we have the resources to do it.
Bottom line on the search: “We’re not just screening, but calling those who meet match criteria,” Thome said. He’ll stay with the district through interviewing, contracts and validation, during which Board members will meet with the final candidate in their current home district.