The newly elected school board members for Westfield Washington Schools won’t have much time to ease into their roles when they take office in January.
Rather, they’ll immediately be tasked with one of the most important jobs of the school board:Hiring a superintendent. In the midst of a global pandemic, no less.
WWS Supt. Sherry Grate announced Nov. 11 that she will retire from the district Dec. 31 to become vice president of strategic initiatives with Ambassador Enterprises, a Fort Wayne-based private equity firm. The district is expected to appoint an interim superintendent by the end of the year to serve while the school board conducts a search for Grate’s permanent replacement, who is expected to join WWS by July 2021.
Michael Adamson, director of board services for the Indiana School Boards Association, presented an overview of the processes to hire an interim and permanent superintendent during a Nov. 17 school board work session meeting at Washington Woods Elementary.
The board was joined by two newly elected board members, Jimmy Cox and Carl (Mike) Steele, who defeated incumbents Amy Pictor and Duane Lutz, respectively, in the Nov. 3 election. Adamson said it’s important for all board members to be intricately involved in the search for a new superintendent.
“Those new board members are going to have the weight of the responsibility of decision-making fall square on their shoulders very quickly,” he said.
Adamson said the board could select an interim superintendent from among existing WWS administrators, but he said that may not be feasible as the district’s leaders are already taxed managing through the COVID-19 pandemic. Board members also could ask a retired superintendent with whom they have connections to take the role, or they could use an agency to place someone in the role. Adamson recommended Brookston-based Administrator Assistance if WWS chooses that route.
When it comes to hiring a permanent superintendent, Adamson said most districts receive 14 to 20 applicants. He expects the opening will be appealing to many of the state’s top administrators.
“This is going to be a very attractive search for all of you,” he said. “I think you’re going to get very qualified candidates applying for this search.”
Several school board members expressed interest in gathering feedback from the public and WWS teachers and administrators before hiring a superintendent. Adamson said that can be a helpful part of the process but that it should only inform board members about qualities those providing feedback would like to see in a superintendent, not specific candidates or the role of a superintendent.
“Your stakeholders do not have a voice in the actual selection process. The superintendent of schools does not answer to your constituents, they answer to you and you answer to your constituents,” Adamson said. “This is an olive branch you’re extending to the community, because you want them to feel comfortable and you want them to trust the process you’re following.”
Adamson said it’s important for the school board to be unanimous in its superintendent selection if at all possible.
“The last thing you want to do is go through the process at the tail end of this with the board being divided,” he said, adding he’s known of superintendent candidates who have refused to take a job without the full support of the school board.
Grate’s departure comes after a tumultuous year in which she and the school board received sharp criticism from many community members for moving longtime Westfield High School Principal Stacy McGuire to a new role developing and leading an alternative learning program.