Looking back with outgoing New Paltz Superintendent of Schools Maria Rice

Outgoing New Paltz Central School District Superintendent of Schools Maria Rice. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

After 14 years on the job and two years after her official retirement, Maria Rice finished her career as superintendent of the New Paltz Central School District just before Christmas. In that time, she’s had three different offices from which she has shaped policy and tone in a school district parents clamor to live in, even while wrestling with the fact that not every child has always felt equally welcome in these halls.

Born to Italian immigrants, Rice was an English teacher before she became an administrator, with a particular fondness for Dickens. Great Expectations rises as one of her favorite of his novels to read and teach. She also has a penchant for poetry, citing Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a favorite.

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The process of selecting Rice’s replacement might be similar to what unfolded when she was hired. “I got a call from a search firm,” she recalls, and was encouraged to apply for superintendent’s job in New Paltz. When she agreed, she was first screened in an interview conducted by consultants, who recommended her as one of the finalists to be interviewed by board members. She recalls being “really impressed” by those trustees, describing them as “welcoming,” “bright” and “full of energy.”

In short order, she also discovered that she was impressed by just about everyone else contributing to the culture of the New Paltz schools. She all but gushes about the “talented pool” of teachers, and how lucky the children are to have them. She has equally high praise for support staff members. To this day, she remembers the ride around the district’s borders she took with transportation director Maureen Ryan. “She’d point out that this house was in the district, but that one wasn’t, and had it all committed to memory.” The lines were — and are — complicated enough that when she and her husband decided it was cheaper to build than buy a home, she took pains to make sure she didn’t accidentally find herself out of the district, and out of a job.

One of the reasons Rice decided to take the job of superintendent of the New Paltz district was her confidence in the schools themselves. She knew that residency in the district was going to be a requirement for the job, and she desired for her son to be educated by New Paltz teachers. She feels this had a positive and lasting impact upon him, but the impact actually went both ways: coming from central New York lacrosse family, her son wanted to play and started the petition which got a school team established. That legacy continues today, as parents and players lobby to get funding for a modified team for seventh and eighth graders on the sports roster.

Living in the district is not something to which Rice has paid lip service. “I shop here on purpose,” she says, knowing full well that in New Paltz the stories of local officials being cornered in the narrow aisles of ShopRite are legendary. She considers it a way to build community relationships and maintain accessibility for stakeholders.

Rice sees herself as a champion of children, and always looks for ways to pay for services and programming which will benefit them. Sports teams, innovative programs, gender-neutral bathrooms and efforts to help kids better learn to connect and support each other mark her time in the district. She’s not operating in a vacuum, either: board members are “extremely generous” when it comes to funding such ideas, particularly when the superintendent can provide data to support the pitch.

This year’s push to add a psychologist is something she puts on that list, in recognition that the “outrageous” stress on young people in school and beyond makes mental health a serious issue nationwide. Several counselors on the district staff speak two languages, and one three, breaking down another barrier that could block a child from the education to which all children are entitled. Another area of focus is helping students who have been out of the classroom for a time — due to illness or any other issue — transition back into the school routine by means of a special “academy” in which their anxiety and concerns can be addressed.

It was for her child that she opted to take the New Paltz job, it was for countless local children that she has worked since, and it’s for other children that she’s decided it’s time to step down. Specifically, “I miss the grandchildren.” She’s missed three out of four of the high school graduations she could have attended as a grandmother, because they were held on the same day as the New Paltz ceremony. She wants the opportunity to spend more time with them going forward.

The work she does is full of alphabet soup and can often seem cerebral, but at its heart it’s all about the children. Rice was instrument in starting the New Paltz Central School District Foundation for Student Enhancement, a nonprofit which exists to fund “innovative programs” which are beyond the scope of the district’s budget. Rice hand-picked the first board members for the foundation in 2011, and worked on creating its charter. “Teachers have exciting ideas,” she said, and of those proposed for foundation support, “the majority are fully or partially funded.” This “gift for our children” may continue to draw some of her attention, as she’s already been asked to join its board after she’s free to make that choice.

Additionally, the capital project which in some sense has defined her role is due to be completed shortly after her departure. Plans called for it to be wrapped up in December, but construction being what it is, a delay of a few weeks for a five-year district-wide set of improvements is not remarkable. Rice started conversations on how to address the many failings in the middle school soon after she took the reins of the district, but a bond proposal that included a number of amenities beyond modernization was torpedoed by voters who seem to have felt trustees at the time were tone-deaf during a time of growing economic crisis. The project now being wrapped up addressed infrastructure issues in all buildings, but changes to the middle school were the most striking: full replacement of the building’s ancient heating system, a new wing and the overhaul of a kitchen in which all school meals for the district are prepared.

With such a big project winding down, Rice thought it was a good time to step down and allow for a replacement to “take [the district] to another level.” Much of that story will be entirely written by her successor, but some efforts started on her watch will be ongoing. Establishing restorative practices to replace outmoded conflict-resolution models is something just starting in the district, and efforts to achieve racial equity — a struggle that some residents have been engaged in for decades — is one she believes will “never be done.” Trustees established a racial equity committee last year, and its members are just starting the process of getting integrated into the communication channels of this multi-million-dollar bureaucracy. For example, the “No Place for Hate” program kicked off in the district this year was launched without members of the racial equity committee even being aware of was contemplated, illustrating the challenges of sharing information across a large and complex system.

Rice leaving caps a year or two that’s been rife with administrative retirements, but while some of them have been met with consternation and even suspicion, the superintendent’s been getting fond messages of farewell, “lovely cards and flowers and emails” from parents of current and former students, as well as teachers and other district employees past and present. A party is being planned for January to mark her service and allow another opportunity to a woman who has overseen the education of a generation of New Paltz’s youngest.

Next week: Part two of Looking forward with newly elected Lloyd Town Supervisor Fred Pizzuto, Gardiner Town Supervisor Marybeth Majestic and Rosendale Town Supervisor Jeanne Walsh.

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