WHRHS Principal Jeffrey Szymaniak was the School Committee’s unanimous choice to become the school district’s new superintendent after final interviews were conducted in a special meeting Thursday, Feb. 15.
“The search committee put a tremendous amount of time into winnowing down what started out as a 19-candidate pool of people,” said by School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes in thanking them for their work to kick-off the interviews. “We had a great mix of teachers, union people, principals, a student, School Committee members, parents at-large and they put a lot of time in.”
The next step is negotiating a contract with Szymaniak, which will be voted on at a Wednesday, Feb. 28 meeting. If the committee and Szymaniak fail to reach agreement on a contract, it could then be offered to the panel’s second choice, Sharon Schools Assistant Superintendent for Information Systems and Administration John M. Marcus. If he should be unavailable or fail to reach agreement with the committee, the committee would meet to consider re-posting the position.
The committee decided the job would not be offered to the third candidate, Lincoln (R.I.) High School Principal Kevin J. McNamara. Differences in Rhode Island and Massachusetts school systems, uncertainly over whether he would be interested in a superintendent job opening up in his current district since he applied at W-H, and a less impressive interview than he gave in the first round, were among the committee’s concerns.
Marcus was visibly disappointed when Hayes gave him news of the vote after the meeting in the main office where Marcus was waiting. An Easton resident, he had expressed a keen desire for the position during his 55-minute interview, noting that he and his wife had spent a weekend touring Whitman and Hanson — eating breakfast at the Olde Hitching Post and sampling the coffee at Mary Lou’s in Whitman center while chatting with residents.
“A year ago, when I wasn’t made the superintendent in Sharon, people told me, ‘Oh, well, things happen for a reason,’” Marcus said in his opening remarks. “But, then, last week I came here. … I have never seen a school so vibrant, a community feeling so alive. … The people I met are good, honest, hard-working people who really just want the best for their kids and that’s what I’m all about.”
Szymaniak’s opening remarks stressed his accomplishments in the district including a reduction in the drop-out rate while increasing the number of advanced-placement courses, the addition of a transition room for students returning to school after extended absences and positive changes to school culture and climate.
Questions all three candidates faced centered on curriculum needs and how changes would be made, their vision for central office staff, priorities for programs not currently funded in the budget, how they would conduct a campaign for passage of a general budget, experience with budget cuts, and how they would supervise the district’s custodial contract.
Both Szymaniak and Marcus gave nearly equal weight to trying to fund elementary school social workers and no-cost, all-day kindergarten.
“Prioritizing is a challenging question, but … right now, given the state of where we’re at, I think elementary social workers in health is huge,” Szymaniak said. “Social-emotional learning right now is elevated to a point that we’re at a critical stage. You see what happened in Florida [Feb. 14].”
He said identifying and instituting support systems for kids who have social-emotional needs can benefit everyone. He lost an assistant principal due to budget cuts a few years ago, but when the funding was returned he put it into adjustment counselors for that reason.
“I also like the idea of full-day K,” Szymaniak said. “I think, if we establish full-day K in this district, we’ll reduce [the number of] our charter school students.”
There are currently 45 W-H children who attend charter school and have “never set foot in this district,” he noted. “I don’t know but if we offered that full-day K if parents would give us an opportunity to educate their kids.”
He also advocates an incremental build-up of middle school foreign language programs with an eye to adding either Chinese or Arabic at the high school later on.
“That’s a tough one to pick just one,” Marcus agreed, noting he would look to input from the community and staff to support kids as much as possible. “Personally, especially in light of [the Feb. 14] awful events, our mission of supporting students, in their mental health and their social-emotional strength and well-being, has got to be paramount for us these days.”
But he stressed he also feels one of the most important curricular changes he’s seen in his 25-year career is full-day kindergarten.
“How you get there is really tricky,” Marcus said. When he worked in Stoughton, that district obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to help get its program started about 15 years ago.
Szymaniak also impressed the committee by voicing his wish to hire an assistant superintendent — to fill the current vacancy from Patrick Dillon’s departure in the fall — with someone who is “opposite my skill set” who is also a multi-talented team player.
“That person has to be a communicator,” he said. “That person has to be an ally and a confidant of myself as superintendent.”
He also advocated an evaluation of central office staff to determine if it is efficient and effective before considering if changes would be made.
He sees a “definite need for improvement of curriculum at the elementary level,” affording teachers more buy-in to what is being done with literacy and numeracy.
“I think teachers have to play an active role in developing the curriculum,” he said. “They’re the masters of what they’re doing in their classroom — I think our curriculum directors are supplemental,” Szymaniak said.
He pledged to take an active role in campaigning for budget support.
“I have no problem getting out in the community and talking to people. I think that’s the job of the superintendent,” Szymaniak said. “It’s a priority of the superintendent to market and talk about the district. … I’m going to be honest with [the public] and I’m going to tell you hard facts.”
He is an advocate of face-to-face talks with town officials as well as social media to communicate with district parents.
Szymaniak also scored points with his knowledge of the current custodial contractor and the ways in which he has dealt with problems in the past.
All three candidates, when given a chance to question the committee asked what its vision of the ideal candidate is. They mentioned qualities such as bringing passion to the job, communication with staff, encouraging use of independent judgment of what’s best for kids, public relations about curriculum and budget needs and the social-emotional needs of students.
Committee member Fred Small used a football analogy.
“I want to see the GOAT — the greatest of all time,” he said. “Someone that can take our team, be collaborative, and inspire and lift everybody to the next level and once you get to that level, inspire them to climb higher.”
Site visits were conducted at all three schools last week as well, with W-H ready to go first.
“Everybody loved all three of these candidates, site visit-wise,” Hayes said.
School Committee member Robert O’Brien Jr., was impressed that one of the students they spoke with had initially circulated a petition against Szymaniak’s change from trimester to semester schedule.
“He and Mr. Szymaniak actually had a sit-down about it and discussed it and, come to find out, that student and a lot of others actually liked it,” O’Brien said. “Their enthusiasm about all the positive things going on at the high school was something nice to hear. Usually, we don’t get to hear nice things in our position.”
He also said district principals voiced a wish to have a superintendent who can hit the ground running.
School Committee member Fred Small said Szymaniak was also strong on school safety.
“In light of the tragic events [in Florida Feb. 14], that’s probably in our minds as well,” he said. “Also that he’s open-minded and willing to listen.”
In fact, the reports from all three site visits were universally positive of administrators who put the interests of students first.
O’Brien said the sentiment in Sharon was that “they absolutely loved [Marcus]. They’d hate to see him go.”
They were also impressed with his technology acumen and how Marcus instituted a program through which high school students were dispatched to elderly housing and senior centers to tutor seniors on computers and use of social media. Small, however, was surprised that Marcus was not afforded the opportunity to interview as a finalist when Sharon hired a new superintendent a few months ago.
“They wanted a change is the way it was told to us by someone who was on their search committee,” Small said.
“It was a really positive environment there,” which was attributed to Marcus School Committee member Kevin Lynam said. “He really seems to work wherever he’s needed.”
School Committee member Robert Trotta, who taught in Stoughton when Marcus worked there validated those reports.
“He transformed the school that he was at,” Trotta said. “I saw that myself.”
McNamara was credited with improving the culture of his high school to compete with both charter and private schools. The school’s wood and auto shops as well as robotic programs also puts the Lincoln, R.I., high school on a level playing field with some vo-tech programs, Small said.
“The guy’s there every day, even Saturdays and Sundays,” School Committee member Dan Cullity said.