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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

District seeks input on new Spokane schools chief

Leaders outline hopes for schools’ new chief

While area leaders suggest a variety of traits are needed in the next head of Spokane Public Schools, they all agree that the new superintendent must have one characteristic in particular: innovation.

“Someone who realizes we are at a crisis and that we can’t just keep spending money on a system that’s broken,” said Carol Landa-McVicar, a trustee of Community Colleges of Spokane. Someone, she added, who thinks: “What are we doing wrong? What are we doing right? What can we adopt?”

Spokane Public Schools’ board of directors launched a national search earlier this month to replace Superintendent Nancy Stowell, who is retiring effective June 30. The first of two open forums this week, to give the community a chance to identify qualities they’d like to see in the next superintendent, will be held at 7 p.m. tonight at Glover Middle School.

The search firm hired by the district’s board, Illinois-based Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, will lead the forums. The names of the finalists are expected to be announced sometime in April, and the new superintendent named in May.

Meanwhile, some community leaders have identified the characteristics they’ll be looking for:

Jenny Rose, Spokane Education Association president

“First thing is the superintendent must be or have been in the classroom, so he or she understands the world of education,” said Rose, who’s been leading the local teachers union since June 2009.

But probably “No. 1 for school district employees is accessibility. They want the superintendent out at their sites, and not formally – someone who just drops by for a visit.”

Other qualities the union thinks are important: visibility in the community and someone who comes from a collective bargaining state.

“A few union members have expressed a desire for a superintendent with fresh eyes, maybe someone outside the district,” Rose said.

Carol Landa-McVicar, Community Colleges of Spokane trustee

“We are not graduating enough kids from high school, and when we do, they are coming to college unprepared, delaying their progression to a higher education degree,” said Landa-McVicar, who has been a trustee for 12 years.

The superintendent of one of the state’s largest school districts needs to be someone who is familiar with all levels of education. “Not just K-12, but kids coming into kindergarten ready to learn and being prepared to move on to higher education.”

The best person for the job will be data driven: “Assess the problems and look at models and strategies to see what’s sustainable.”

Also, he or she “needs to be a good communicator with parents as well as principals, and someone who can collaborate. For example, how do we address the high number of students that are coming into the college who need remedial math?”

Ben Stuckart, Spokane City Council president

“The next superintendent needs to be a visionary,” said Stuckart, newly elected City Council president and former Communities in Schools executive director.

“The person needs to be an independent leader,” he said. “The board needs to set broad policies and let the leader do the work.”

A spirit of collaboration also is important, he said. “I want someone who wants to work with the city because that’s the only way we are going to get through all the paring down.”

Stuckart also thinks the right candidate needs classroom experience. “I think we as a society spend too much time blaming teachers and we need someone who understands what it is like.”

The right candidate will want to make Spokane home, not view the job as a steppingstone or be someone at the tail end of his or her career, he said.

Chris Cargill, Washington Policy Center

“From our perspective the ideal leader is one who empowers their principals. Give them a budget and let them govern their schools the way they see fit,” Cargill said. “Too often we see a top-down approach with the budget. It’s been successful in other school districts, including Baltimore.”

The Washington Policy Center would also like a leader to consider a practice called “fair student funding,” Cargill said, explaining that means each student’s needs are funded rather than districts being given a set amount of money for each student.

Cargill says the right person should be “someone … who will come in with a fresh set of ideas and look at implementing reforms.”

The Washington Policy Center has been critical of administrative pay, but Cargill chose not to comment specifically on salary. “But, like any leader, superintendents should be held accountable for how children perform in their schools.”  

Rich Hadley, Greater Spokane Incorporated president

The superintendent fills three primary roles: chief executive officer, executive director of the school board and a civic leader, Hadley said.

“Start with the board; that’s where you set the vision for the organization, so you need someone who has a vision and someone who can collaborate with the board on that vision for the district,” Hadley said. “Then there’s how you bring the vision to reality, what are the objectives. And thirdly is the budget, which should reflect the vision and the plans.”

The right person needs to posses “good interpersonal communication skills and the ability to motivate people toward a vision,” he said. The next superintendent needs to be a community partner and have a good relationship with peers in higher education.

They also “need to be a leader in the region, play a role in the community, know about government relations and understand the goals for the community,” Hadley said.

Regarding superintendent salary, Hadley said, Stowell’s current $216,000 salary is appropriate given that the position is essentially a CEO of one of the region’s largest employers. “A CEO for a company that size would be paid more.”