Southbridge now has its fifth Superintendent of Schools in just over two years.
Ely, Wiggins, Nembirkow, Gardner and now Stanton.
Eric Ely was the last chosen by anything approaching a community-based process. Even in that case, however, the process was compromised.
All four have departed under clouds of varying density and magnitude.
According to today’s Worcester Telegram Mrs. Stanton has been named “acting superintendent”. (Question to the chairman, “Is that a legal title?”)
Prior to the coup that the current chairman purportedly orchestrated against Mrs. Woodruff, the former Chairman had started a search committee to name a permanent Superintendent. That effort was halted and allowed to expire by the current ruling body.
One of those commenting on recent developments stated, “Who the hell in their right mind would want to come here to work as Superintendent? Seriously Ely, Wiggin, Buzz, now Gardner and that is just in what two year. Word of advice for anyone who would put their name in for Superintendent, buy yourself a bullet proof vest. Because if your employees don't get you because they don't want to held accountable, maybe the School Committee will because you are not serving their every whim, this town will just chew you up and spit you out SO DON'T WASTE YOUR TIME OR REPUTATION STAY AWAY.”
Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I strongly disagree with this sentiment.
In the case of Gardner and Wiggin we were dealing with individuals who had no prior experience as a Superintendent. In the case of Ely there were enough red flags in his background to raise more than a little concern. Finally, in the case of Nembirkow, it seems that his legend superseded the facts. As I pointed out in the article Blind Faith, there were plenty of factors which could have been found if people looked for them. These elements may well have tempered the almost messiah-like reception with which he was initially greeted.
The reality is that, despite the abysmal reputation of the district, there is a lot of good at the lower levels of administration. All of the elementary schools have functioned well and their respective Principals have managed to maintain forward progress. The middle/high school, as well, has a Principal who is widely recognized as maintaining good order and discipline coupled with a positive mental attitude. This in spite of the opinion of the former Superintendent that she would not have been hired had she known of the Principal’s medical condition.
Nor is funding the problem. Southbridge ranks among the highest in Worcester County on the basis of per pupil spending.
The first problem is the lack of true leadership at the top of the organization coupled with a dire lack of respect and collaboration with those at the lower levels.
As I’ve said several times before, the first thing that must be done is the appointment of a search committee to retain a new Superintendent. While professional credentials are a necessary prerequisite there should be equal if not greater attention to what can best be described as character combined with a profound sense of fiscal responsibility. As the Ely and Nembirkow cases illustrate, this calls for a little more than interviews and a site visit. It calls for some real research into the backgrounds of semi-finalists.
Someone is needed who will dismantle the bureaucracy at 25 Cole Ave. that Buzz and his successor erected to insulate themselves from the school administrators and personnel. Someone is needed who will not delegate so much as collaborate with those entrusted with the task of educating. In so doing they will not only free up funds for the students but dramatically reduce the legal expenses associated with the prior administrations. As a result they might be able to reduce the burden on taxpayers as well as increasing funds for students.
Also needed is a competent business manager who will get a firm grip on the district’s finances and begin the task of structuring a responsible budget that is not subject to the whims of passing fascinations.
Beyond these is the need to restructure the School Committee itself.
The current leadership has demonstrated a paranoia and obsession with secrecy unmatched since the days of Star Chamber proceedings.
The process needs to be open to criticism and responsive to public concern. Rather than silencing their critics, the need is to foster open discussion and resolve disputes by compromise rather than by fiat. There is also the need to recognize (as is also true of the Town Council) that saying that something was done in subcommittee is an adequate explanation of the process.
These changes can only come at the ballot box. I hope that serious candidates will emerge before June to provide an alternative to the current disastrous leadership.