The Harford County Board of Education’s superintendent search advanced this week with a series of private focus groups and public forums to determine what stakeholders want from the school system’s next leader.
The search began in late November with an online survey, which thus far has garnered over 400 responses, said Ryan Ray, corporate director of Ray & Associates, Inc. The Iowa-based education executive search firm is under a $7,500 contract with Board for the information-gathering phase only. The firm is also conducting superintendent searches for Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County public schools, and conducted the superintendent search last year in Howard County Public Schools.
The private focus groups held Wednesday and Thursday in Harford County were by Board invitation only, Ray said, with slots for 15 participants each. The groups included students, teachers, administrators, support staff, elected officials, parents, and business and community leaders.
Ray declined to characterize the feedback from the focus groups, except to say that participants were vocal, and talked about diversity within the county, and strong community support for the public schools.
Turnout for the focus groups was good overall, Ray said, although sources said the turnout among non-school stakeholder groups ranged between 5 – 10 participants. Turnout at the public forums was nearly non-existent. “If things are running smoothly, not a lot of people turn out,” Ray said. He added that the availability of the online survey was also a likely factor and the 400-plus survey responses demonstrated community involvement.
However, at the first of three public forums held Wednesday night, substitute teacher Kyle Dixon was the sole participant. Undaunted, Ray and his colleague, Michael Glascoe, ran through the list of questions given to all stakeholders and Dixon obliged with responses that Ray later said were consistent with what he’d heard from the focus groups.
Dixon was first given a paper copy of the online survey, which asks participants to select ten characteristics from a list of 33 that are most important in a selecting a candidate. Next, came a series of open-ended questions.
In response to questions about the strengths of the county and school system, Dixon said that the area was diverse, geographically well-situated, and the school system had strong extra-curricular and magnet school programs, plus a dedicated staff. As for the qualities he’d like to see in the next superintendent, Dixon said he or she should put students first, and be a regular presence in the schools, rather than remain isolated in central office. An open door policy, listening to stakeholders, and being able to make the hard decisions that benefit students is also key, he said.
Asked about management style, Dixon said he was looking for someone who didn’t micromanage, but made sure things got done. Among the critical issues facing Harford County Public Schools, Dixon said were “navigating the politics”, the budget, employee pay.
Turnout doubled at the public forum held Thursday morning in Bel Air with two participants who each echoed many of the same themes noted by Dixon. Pylesville resident Ruth Cobb said she also wanted a candidate with experience in the classroom who could work with legislators and union leaders and would consider unpopular options such as possibly closing schools with low enrollment to save money.
Recent Towson University graduate Jessica Blake said she student-taught in Harford County Public Schools and thought the next superintendent should be a trustworthy decision maker with a clear vision and the ability to communicate. Administrative experience was important, she said, along with experience in the challenges of the new the Common Core curriculum: “They should know what the teachers are dealing with,” she said.
Finally, two more participants Thursday evening in Havre de Grace brought the total turnout for the public forums to five. Aberdeen High School teacher Lisa Saunders said that Harford County was relatively large, yet maintained a close-knit feel. Pastor Baron Young said that he valued the school system’s cultural proficiency council. Both Saunders and Young cited the budget as a critical issue, which Ray & Associates representative Michael Glascoe said was a concern mentioned by every group over the past two days.
Pastor Young said he wanted a superintendent from the education ranks in Harford County, and someone who could relate to staff at all levels, from the custodian to the school board. Interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan appeared to fit that description, he said, but he didn’t know if she was considering the job. Young was the only public forum participant to name a candidate when Ray & Associates asked for specific recommendations.
Interim Superintendent Canavan, a former longtime principal at Southampton Middle School and former executive director of middle school performance, has said that she needs to focus on the needs of the system, according to HCPS spokeswoman Teri Kranefeld. Canavan will make a decision and announcement “when appropriate,” Kranefeld said. The permanent job carries a four-year term beginning July 1, 2014.
Ray, son of the company founder and coincidentally a former William S. James “Jaguar”, said on Wednesday that the firm would forward all feedback to the Board, which would decide next steps that could include a national search. In the meantime, the online survey will be available through 8:00 a.m. on Friday, January 10.
Take the survey here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/W5HQGD2