A community forum was held last Thursday at Highland High School as part of the ongoing process of hiring a new superintendent of schools for the Highland Central School District. Deborah Haab, who was hired as superintendent in March of 2009 and had a contract extension running through June of 2019, announced her retirement earlier this year. She has remained as acting superintendent since, and will remain in that position until an interim replacement is appointed by the Board of Education. That appointment is expected to happen at the board’s regular Tuesday, October 3 meeting (too late to be published in this edition).
Ulster BOCES District Superintendent Dr. Charles Khoury is leading the superintendent search process. He led the community forum last Thursday, and although the turnout was light — with just about ten people present — those who were there were vocal, and Khoury said he’d already received more than 300 responses by e-mail to a survey asking parents and other community members what experience and personal qualities they would like to see in the next superintendent of schools.
Prior to the forum, Khoury met for roundtable-style discussions with representatives from different employee groups as well as members of the parent-teacher associations. He told the group attending the forum that he intends to consider the feedback from all sources and then make a written report to the Board of Education, which he will present at the October 3 meeting.
The process of hiring a new superintendent is a lengthy one, with the board expected to conduct initial interviews in October and then select finalists for additional interviews in November. At this point, constituent groups will again be invited to participate in the process, meeting with the finalists and providing feedback to the BOE.
The announcement of the board’s selection of a new superintendent is not likely to be made before January, 2018. At this point they’re saying the anticipated starting date is February. However, if the person chosen is already an acting superintendent in another district, that person will have to honor the 60-day notice requirement and they would not be available to begin the position in Highland until April of 2018. The most desirable outcome, said Khoury, would be to have a superintendent in place in time to conduct budget talks.
The community members at the forum included parents along with one former and one current Board of Education member and an administrator from BOCES (who also are all parents with children either in the district or graduated from it).
Over the course of the hour-long discussion, the consensus seemed to be that parents want the district to hire someone innovative, sensitive to cultural and economic diversity and willing to commit to living in the Highland district.
The latter was deemed to be important by several people present, who noted that decisions made by the superintendent can be difficult, and the person hired has to be willing to face members of the community in the supermarket line or a local restaurant, and not just go home to another area and not be held accountable publicly. “We need someone who knows what is going on in the community and knows our culture,” said one man. “And they should send their kids to school here. If it’s good enough for our kids, it’s good enough for theirs.”
The same person also wants to see the district become more competitive with nearby districts such as New Paltz, noting that houses are valued higher when the school district is higher-achieving. Another parent noted that the ranking of the high school is sixth out of ten locally; “and as a parent and taxpayer, I find that distressing.”
Vocational learning was brought up as an important focus, with one man saying that while a plumber may not need to go to college, he still needs to know how to do the books for his business.
A desirable candidate for superintendent should have teaching experience, said several participants, or have been a principal, who would understand what goes on in the classrooms. Hiring a person without an educational background was seen as a strong negative. There was also concern raised that with superintendent salaries higher in larger districts, the person hired might be using the position as a stepping stone to a better-paying job and not stick around to see things through in Highland.
Other requests included finding a team leader who knows how to inspire collaboration, and someone who will understand that Highland is not a wealthy community and knows how to work with what they’ll be given.
The concept of having “vision” was mentioned several times. “I’d like to see a person who has the vision to prepare kids for the future,” said one man. “Sports are fine, but they don’t pay the mortgage.”
Another man said the new superintendent should “set the bar high” and be aspirational.
Communication within the district needs to be improved, according to one forum participant. He suggested a superintendent newsletter with up-to-date news, commenting that the district website now is often outdated. “Information equals empowerment,” he noted. “Information will get out, whether it’s inaccurate or not.”
Rather than having rumors surface on Facebook, how much better it would be, he noted, to have the superintendent keep lines of communication open. “Reducing skepticism increases trust. And when the community is engaged, they’re more likely to be positive.”
One woman at the forum noted that her child had attended school in the district for seven years but in that time, teachers of color had been rare. “Something like 25 percent of the students in Highland are ethnic minorities,” she said, “but the teaching staff doesn’t reflect that.”
Another person present agreed, saying that the population in Highland has changed over the years and the new hire needs to understand diversity, and know how to make all cultures feel a part of everything.
Finding the right candidate, no matter how long it takes, was deemed more important than meeting the arbitrary deadlines spoken of to hire a person by early next year.
The superintendent search is open statewide. The salary will be between $160,000 and $185,000, depending on experience. The average superintendent salary in Ulster County is $187,000, said Khoury, who noted that he expects to receive 25-30 applicants for the position.
The application for superintendent and more information are available at http://www.highland-k12.org/.