WESTPORT — The Westport School Committee started working in earnest on the search for a new superintendent at its Feb. 5 meeting, endorsing an ambitious timeline that is expected to end with the hiring of a new school leader at the April 10 meeting.
The school board met with two search coordinators from the UMass Boston Collins Center for Public Management to plot out a schedule for appointing a candidate-screening committee, conducting preliminary interviews, and investigating potential finalists to replace Superintendent Ann Marie Dargon, whose contract expires this summer.
The position is being advertised, and candidates have until March 5 to file applications. By that time, the school committee is expected to have appointed an 11- to 13-member screening committee to review the resumes and invite good prospects in for closed-door interviews.
School Committee Chair Margot DesJardins indicated the screening committee would represent all segments of the school system and the community at large. The screening committee should consist of two school board members, elementary and secondary schoolteachers, representatives of the school staff and administration, two or more parents, a town administrator or selectman, and one at-large member to represent community interests, the consultants said.
Residents, town officials and school employees interested in serving on the screening committee should send letters of interest and their reasons for wanting to serve to the chair at the central office, 17 Main Road, Westport, MA, 02790, or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, at least a week before the expected Feb. 28 appointment date.
Volunteers will need to commit to four or five consecutive nights of meetings in mid-March to conduct preliminary interviews, and promise to maintain complete confidentiality about the applicants until background checks are completed and the names of three to five finalists are made public at the beginning of April.
Interviews of the finalists would be conducted in open session by the full school committee, which is expected to conduct site visits at the candidates’ current places of employment and talk to their colleagues, consultant John Brackett said.
After an April 10 hiring decision, several weeks of contract negotiations would likely follow, with a July 1 start date anticipated. “It’s an ambitious timeline,” Brackett said, but a schedule that should be completed by May 1 even if minor glitches such as snowstorms push some deadlines back a bit.
This week, the school committee plans to schedule at least two public focus group meetings between Feb. 12 and 27 at which teachers, school staffers and parents can provide input on a school district vision statement indicating what the district’s most important priorities are, and what kind of qualifications and experience a new leader should possess.
“We want to make this (search) process as open and as transparent as we can,” Brackett told the committee. “We want to be collaborative” with as much staff and public input as possible, he added, with at least two public forums held in the coming weeks.
The first step in the general input-collecting process was for the visiting consultants to poll the school board members on the set of skills, experience and educational philosophy they would like to see the next superintendent possess.
The depth of candidates’ experience in other administrative positions, feedback from past and present colleagues, and the results of background checks will help the consulting team guide the screening committee into a decision on what finalists to recommend to the school committee, consultant Ray Shurtleff said.
“No less than three” finalists would be sent to the school board for further consideration, he said.
“We think there will be a competitive pool” of qualified candidates applying for the position, based on current market conditions, Brackett said.
School Committee member Tony Viveiros said his top priority for the district’s next top executive was a strong “leadership presence. ... To me, that’s the most important thing.”
Member Mark Carney said he wants a candidate with all of the basic qualifications and a proven “track record” of making good hiring decisions in past positions.
Member Nancy Rioux is also looking for strong leadership skills, curriculum development and financial management experience, a good listener and a supporter of the district’s increasing focus “on social/emotional learning” issues, she said.
Member Carolina Africano said transparency and integrity were key personal characteristics for a new superintendent, who must possess good communication skills. “Communication is huge” for the position, she said, as the job requires constant interaction with staff, parents and town officials.
DesJardins had the longest list of key qualifications. She said she’s looking for “someone who’s an inspirational leader, someone who’s a transformational leader ... a critical thinker” with curriculum development and business office experience.
She also suggested that an applicant with that track record and some experience teaching at the high school level would be an ideal candidate. She also wants a good communicator, saying finalists should have to provide writing samples to help prove their communication skills.
On the outside chance that the recommended finalists do not pass muster with the school board, the committee has the option of seeking an interim superintendent to take over the district this summer and starting the entire search process over again.