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Sag Harbor School District Talks Superindendent Search

Posted on 19 June 2013

By Tessa Raebeck

A great communicator, a background in business and an active part of the community. Those are among the top characteristics Sag Harbor residents hope to see in their next superintendent according to a survey conducted by the consulting firm School Leadership.

School Leadership was hired by the district to facilitate the hiring process for a new superintendent following the resignation of Dr. John Gratto last summer. The firm’s president, Chuck Fowler, presented an update on the superintendent search to members of the Sag Harbor Board of Education (BOE) and the community at Monday’s board meeting.

Dr. Carl Bonuso was hired as interim superintendent following Dr. Gratto’s resignation. Following the renewal of Dr. Bonuso’s contract for another year this past January, the board postponed the search for a replacement until the next holiday season. The district will assume no additional cost for suspending the search last year and continuing it now.

“Successful practice shows that during and immediately following the December holidays is the period where the largest number of potential candidates becomes willing to actively consider new work opportunities,” said Dr. Fowler.

Dr. Fowler, an executive secretary of the organization Suburban School Superintendents and former superintendent himself, explained the steps of the search and outlined reasons for hiring a professional firm to assist in the search and recruitment process.

“The number of candidates has steadily declined in the last five years,” said Dr. Fowler, explaining that 40 percent of New York’s 716 superintendents retired in the last five years.

“Some recent New York City area searches have yielded as few as 15 applicants,” Dr. Fowler added during a slideshow presentation.

In March of this year, “we were bringing 50 to 60 candidates to the school boards with which we were working,” he said of his firm. “Focus on the fact that we are really facilitating this process for the board. It’s the board’s search.”

With School Leadership, Dr. Fowler said the board has completed its initial planning phase — collecting data from school stakeholders about the specifications it should be seeking in a new school superintendent. Advertising for the position and recruitment follows, although the board has not yet begun to screen applicants or conduct interviews.

While developing the specifications for what kind of candidate would be ideal for the superintendent position in Sag Harbor, Dr. Fowler said School Leadership has met with various stakeholder groups in the district, such as students, parents and teachers. The firm conducted an online survey that asked respondents to list elements such as the “top five experience and skill factors desired” and “characteristics and background experience that are important.”

He noted 190 members of the community responded including 74 parents, 28 non-parents, 27 students, 19 teachers, 12 other staff and 30 people who identified as “other.”

The top skill factors desired were the ability to decide on a budget, experience as a leader in a similar district, curriculum skills, ability to work with the BOE, and past experience as a superintendent. Experience in the classroom was also highly ranked.

“Teachers wanted to know that the person had walked in his or her shoes,” said Dr. Fowler, while students want “someone they might talk to about issues they see in the school program.”

The sense of community in Sag Harbor was overwhelmingly listed as a strength of the district, necessitating that the new superintendent is “someone who’s very visible and accessible,” said Dr. Fowler.

“The response in Sag Harbor was a very good response,” Dr. Fowler said. “You want someone who’s going to come in and be able to at least maintain that, if not improve it.”

Dr. Bonuso’s name came up frequently, with responses such as “someone like the interim superintendent.”

Pierson teacher Jim Kinnier spoke in favor of the board’s decision to extend Dr. Bonuso’s interim status for another year, calling Dr. Bonuso “a high-quality, top-notch superintendent.”

“I think the most important thing that he brings to our district is balance,” said Kinnier. “With another year here, he will solidify the foundation of balance that this district needs to really go forward.”

School Leadership summarized the specifications in order to use them in advertising for the position and the board adopted them in December 2012. Due to the postponement of the search process, the vacancy will not be advertised until December 2013 through January 2014.

“We’re looking to yield the largest number of candidates,” said Dr. Fowler. “So it gives the board the greatest degree of choice.”

The board hopes to appoint a superintendent in March or April of 2014.

Members of the community and the board expressed their interest to involve the community in the ultimate decision as much as possible. Dr. Fowler cited the issues of confidentiality that occur when the board holds public forums to present candidates, many of which still hold positions in other districts.

“Can you think of other ways that we might be able to involve the community that does not put the confidentiality at risk or the search process at risk?” asked Chris Tice, vice president of the board. “The intent is to engage the community as much as possible.”

“The board will be accountable for that,” responded Dr. Fowler. “The board can’t appoint someone if they have misgivings about that person, but the person seems to have a lot of support from the people in the community. The board has to feel this is the best person.”

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