A quiet anger and intense satisfaction seethed through the crowd at Huber Street School on April 10 as members of the community gathered to take the first steps towards finding a new superintendent of schools.
Although coached as an informational meeting to assess what the community wanted to see as far as ability and temperament of the next superintendent.
While William Librera, of ECRA Group Inc – the firm assigned to help recruit candidates for the post – tried to keep the crowd focused on the future, it was clear that the meeting was in part a report card on outgoing Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Randina, who after four years of tension with teachers and residents, tendered her resignation last year and will be gone by July 1 when the new superintendent is expected to replace her.
After a four year power struggle between the community and the superintendent often with the School Trustees caught in the middle, residents clearly gave Randina a failing grade, saying in some cases what they did not want in a superintendent.
“We encourage anyone who wants to be a superintendent in a school district to learn as much about the community as possible,” William Librera
Focus on the future
Librera told the crowd of about 70 people that he wanted them to focus on the future, not the past, to talk about what the community is about and what it sees its needs are.
In many ways, the process of replacing the superintendent was an example of participatory democracy in action, as teachers and parents flexed their muscles to reign in someone they believed was out of touch with the community, showing even Randina’s defenders who is boss in Secaucus.
This would be reflected a few days later in the April 16 school election when voters cast out two more board members who had defended her and rejected former trustee Tom Troyer’s bid to get back on the board.
Librera said his firm had been taken on to seek out potential candidates for superintendent, with the hopes of having someone in place by July 1.
The Chicago based firm, he said, has conducted thousands of similar searches and knows that an important part of any search is to seek community input, not just about what the community wants, but what it is about, what people see as its challenges, and what it wants going forward.
He said the firm encourages advertising for candidates, but also seeks out candidates on its own for people who might meet the profile.
The process first weeds out those candidates that do not meet the criteria, and then gradually hones in on those that would fit the profile better.
“We encourage anyone who wants to be a superintendent in a school district to learn as much about the community as possible,” he said.
The firm doesn’t just look at resumes, but often delves deeper into the backgrounds of candidates that seem a good fit for a community.
“Sometimes, a candidate may look too good to be true,” he said.
While some residents wanted the next superintendent to be from Secaucus, others said they didn’t care as long as whomever was selected had the best interests of the community at heart, and communicated with residents and teachers.
Promoting from within Secaucus poses several problems, Librera said. It limits the choices the district has when there might be other candidates that are qualified and meet the district’s standards who live elsewhere. The state requires any superintendent to have state certification, and because the state also imposed a salary cap on superintendents, those who work as principals in a district might not want to take a cut or may see the cap as too restrictive.
But even though the salary guide poses a challenge for hiring, Librera said there are still qualified candidates to be found.
A proven track record in education is a big part of the criteria looked at for potential candidates, something several residents said they wanted to see.
Librera asked residents to name what they saw as district’s strengths. Many said the district had good teachers and parents that were very involved with their kids’ education. Some saw its growing diversity as a strength, while others emphasized the close knit nature of Secaucus.
Some parents praised the arts programs in the schools and classes offered for pre-K. The schools are safe and the principals know their students and parents. Technology has improved.
Challenges and concerns for the district ranged from the need to open up the district’s gifted and talented programs to more student to concepts of traffic safety outside school buildings.
But people in the crowd were most vocal in detailing the characteristics they wanted to see in their school’s superintendent, painting a portrait that was nearly opposite to the outgoing superintendent, wanting someone who was more intimately involved with teachers and parents, someone who is accountable to the Board of Education, someone who believes in the district and has a good feeling for what residents want.
Librera kept a record of the responses saying that these would help narrow the search process, and would shortly used to narrow the list of candidates that would be presented to the Board of Education. He said he hoped the board would choose a candidate in time for July 1, but it is possible a new superintendent could be selected as late as August.
“What you don’t want is to have a new superintendent starting after the school year begins such as in October,” he said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.