School superintendent search applicant pool small

BAR HARBOR — Three candidates for the job of superintendent of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS) are to be interviewed over the next two weeks by the 15-member superintendent search committee.

Charlie Wray, chairman of both the committee and the MDIRSS board, said following the Feb. 1 deadline for submitting applications that about a dozen people had applied. But he acknowledged last week that, while about a dozen people had expressed interest in the job, only six actually applied.

“Did I want more applications? Yes,” Wray said.

But he added that, according to the Maine School Management Association, which assists school districts with superintendent searches, six applications is a reasonable number.

“They weren’t surprised, and they didn’t think it was unusual in Maine,” Wray said. “They said, ‘You’re fine.’”

But at Monday night’s MDIRSS board meeting, board members Judy Sproule and Mike McKee both expressed concern about the small number of applicants.

“It’s a small pool. Hopefully we have a good fish in it,” McKee said.

Howard Colter, who was superintendent of the MDI-area school district from 1992-2004 and returned to lead the MDIRSS in 2012, is retiring June 30.

He said in an interview last Friday that if he were on the superintendent search committee or the school system board, he would be concerned that there weren’t more applicants for the job.

“I do a lot of hiring, and my starting assumption based on lots of years of doing this is that half the people who apply don’t even meet the basic qualifications,” Colter said.

And, typically, he said, only half of those who may appear to have the right qualifications are really well suited for the job.

“So, you’re down to 25 percent [of those who apply],” he said. “And 25 percent of six is a very small number. That’s the part that concerns me.”

Colter acknowledged that the search committee only needs to have one really good candidate.

“It isn’t so much a matter of how many people apply; it’s whether you get people of real quality,” he said. “I don’t assume that of the six people who applied, there aren’t one or more strong candidates. I hope there are.”

But he added, “It’s never the case that you want to just find the best of those who apply for a job. You want to find somebody who, even if you had 100 people apply, would also be the best of that larger pool.”

Kristie Losquadro, a member of both the school board and search committee, said at Monday’s MDIRSS meeting that conducting interviews with three candidates does not mean the search committee will necessarily recommend that any of them should be hired.

“We could make the decision at any time to reopen [the search process],” she said. “But we do feel that we have some very highly qualified applicants.”

Downside factors

Colter suggested in last week’s interview that the structure of the school system, in which each school operates largely independently, with its own board and budget, might have frightened off some potentially strong candidates. And he said the search committee should not expect whoever is chosen to be able to accomplish everything they might want.

“I think it’s either incredibly wishful thinking or ignorance to think that somebody can do much more than just survive the demands of working with 11 boards in a variety of communities,” he said.

“You hope you can give some leadership and direction. You hope you can be providing inspiration and fresh thought. And I hope that I’ve done a little bit of that. But you’re also just trying to keep it going.”

He said preparing for and attending multiple school board meetings not only takes a tremendous amount of time, but he comes away from almost every meeting with additional work for himself and other members of the central office staff.

“You’ve got to have the time and be able to be fresh enough and energized enough to do good work,” he said. “When you’re running on this treadmill, there’s not a lot of time for that.”

Colter said that if Cornell Knight, who was hired as Bar Harbor’s town manager a year and a half ago, had been told he also would be the manager for seven other towns, including the outer islands, he might not have been interested.

“I’m guessing he would have said, ‘That’s nuts,’” Colter said.

“You just have to wonder, if that is a bad idea for running a town, why is it a good idea for running a school district?

“I think it ought to be possible to have great schools, great teachers and great school boards and have it be a job that allows somebody the opportunity to have a personal life, evenings at home and meals with your family,” he said.

Despite the tremendous demands and frustrations of the job, Colter said, “I have thoroughly enjoyed being back.”

But he said that isn’t because of the nature of the superintendent’s job. Rather, it’s because of the people in the communities that the schools serve and the individual schools’ teachers, administrators and boards.

“This district is very special,” Colter said. “The community as a whole is a great place to live and work.”

Members of the individual school boards also serve on the high school board and school system board. Colter described them as “good people” who don’t try to micromanage, who trust and work well with their administrators and who strongly support education.

But he suggested they need to do more than just talk about the structure of the school system and how it is governed.

“I think it’s ripe for change,” he said. “It’s ripe for some hard questions to be wrestled with and to be answered. Answered, not just wrestled with.”

Former MDIRSS Superintendent Rob Liebow said last week that the structure of the system can be off-putting to prospective leaders.

“It is complicated at best and daunting at worst, especially for someone who has never experienced it,” he said. “It’s not attractive for someone who’s looking for consistency and efficiency.”

Liebow was superintendent here for eight years before leaving in 2012 to take the job of school superintendent in Rockport, Mass. That district has three schools with one governing board and one annual budget.

Liebow said the structure of the MDI-area school system and the demands that places on the superintendent might not be the principal reason for the small number of applicants for the job. Perhaps more important, he said, is what he sees as a decrease in the popularity of the profession in general.

“I don’t think people are going into the superintendency,” he said. “I don’t think they find it as rewarding as they once thought it would be. It loses a little bit of the reason why you were in education in the first place, which is to be close to kids. It doesn’t have the same sort of connection [with kids] that you have as a principal.”

Several other school districts in Maine are currently looking for new superintendents, including Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Fort Fairfield and the district the encompasses Deer Isle, Stonington, Brooklin and Sedgwick.

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]
Dick Broom

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