Retiring BKW super says: The sky is the limit

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Berne-Knox-Westerlo Superintendent Timothy Mundell announced that he'll be retiring, ending a nearly decade-long run that saw the district make enormous strides.

HILLTOWNS — Berne-Knox-Westerlo Superintendent Timothy Mundell, who has overseen a period of remarkable stability and improvement in the district, announced his retirement at the board of education’s May 7 budget hearing after nearly a decade in the position.

Mundell told the board that the decision came after “much deliberation and conversation with my wife,” explaining that retirement would allow them to “make better use of our time, attend to our health, and make sure we have our family relations in order.”

When he was appointed in 2015, at the age of 53, the rural district was coming off a period of high turnover of top administrators, with two one-year interim superintendents in a row, and the loss of both elementary- and secondary-school principals. 

Mundell was the first of a string of long-term administrators hired by the board at the time, and has been the figurehead of this stability, promising from the outset that he’d stay in the position for as long as the board would have him. In 2018, the board reciprocated by signing a contract that guaranteed him the spot until his retirement, so long as his performance reviews were at least satisfactory. 

The contract also limited his salary increases to 1 percent. His salary for the 2023-24 school year is $191,337, according to state data, with over $60,000 in benefits.

During his tenure, the district saw improved test scores, tackled chronic absenteeism, dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, and — in what’s likely to be his most tangible legacy — overhauled the district’s buildings to bring students to the forefront of educational technology and theory. 

Arguably the best compliment district leaders heard over the past decade, judging by how often it’s been repeated, is that the district is unrecognizable to those who went through it decades ago. 

School board member Matthew Tedeschi said at the May 7 meeting that, under Mundell, BKW has “probably been one of the greatest comeback stories.” 

He said that, when he joined the Capital Region Boards of Cooperative Education Services board in 2019, he learned BKW was one of two schools that former BOCES superintendent Anita Murphy had considered the most dysfunctional when she took that position, shortly before Mundell’s appointment. 

Now, Tedeschi says that his colleagues there see BKW as “leading the pack in our region.” 

“And that’s all thanks to you,” he said to Mundell. 



Before coming to BKW, Mundell, who was raised in Ballston Spa, had worked in five districts, and been a board member in a sixth, mostly downstate in administrative roles.

“These included large suburban districts, smaller rural districts, diverse districts and not so diverse districts, and wealthy districts and not so wealthy districts,” he told The Enterprise in an email this week. “So, the shift to BKW as a rural district was not a difficult one to make. The biggest upside is that BKW is very much like the district where I grew up and graduated, making it easy to understand the community dynamics and how to work together to make progress.”

He spent the first year, he said, “listening to stakeholders and operating to get through each day, while empowering individuals to try new things that would benefit students.”

Stability was an important goal for Mundell, who explained this week that stable leadership offers “vision, purpose, strategy, [and] consistent and effective language and behaviors in an organization, team, family, school, or any social group,” and that without it, “systems break down, people become frustrated and fearful, and achievement disappears.”

A little over a year after Mundell’s appointment in 2015, the district hired Annette Landry as the elementary school principal, and Mark Pitterson as the high school principal. Landry is still in that position, and Pitterson retired only last year, elevating one of the district’s English teachers, Bonnie Kane, to replace him. 

Even the board of education has been fairly consistent, with the last contested election taking place in 2019. 

At least some of this can likely be attributed to Mundell’s tenure coinciding with the state’s Foundation Aid no longer being flat as well as BKW benefiting from the hold-harmless (also known as save-harmless) clause, which guaranteed that schools would not lose state aid as a result of declining enrollment, something BKW has and continues to struggle with. 

Governor Kathy Hochul had proposed eliminating hold harmless, threatening to put BKW in a much more difficult financial position, but agreed after blowback to hold off while a commission studies the state formula. Despite this, the BKW board still has a proposed budget that would raise the tax levy 5.1 percent, necessitating a supermajority vote to pass the budget since it is over the state-set tax cap, undoing the decreases the board had made over the years for a 10-year increase of .61 percent, as was reported at the May 7 hearing. 

Mundell, who kept busy this spring doing advocacy work while the elimination was still on the table, said this week that the loss of save harmless in coming years is still a major risk to the district.

“There is no doubt that the formula must be re-evaluated,” he said. “It is a complex formula and the data driving the formula is a quarter-of-a-century old. Rural districts, and all save harmless districts, must be loud with their voice that students, families, and communities are more than a number. When education is focused only on enrollment, the outcome will be reverse Robinhood — robbing from some to give to others, and that makes for a bad scenario.”

Mundell said he thinks the state “can do better than that archaic and ineffective strategy.” 

Mundell added later of BKW, “In its effort to be fiscally responsible to the community and maintain excellent programs for students, the District has also strategically utilized expense-based aid growth, such as capital project building aid and BOCES aid to offset costs to the local community. These efforts have resulted in a large portion of the total state aid to the district, aside from the benefit of hold-harmless status for Foundation Aid allocation.”

When asked how he feels the district might fare in light of both his retirement and potential cuts to its aid, Mundell said that he had been working with this situation in mind, and thinks the district is on solid ground due to its personnel and overall culture. 

“Part of my decision making was focused on sustainability of programs and services for students and families,” he said. “For more than a year, I have been evaluating this scenario and this year we reached a place where I believe faculty and staff have a solid understanding of our vision and the strategic plan to follow. 

“Our administrators are committed and they support the daily work effectively,” he went on. “The Board is stable and reflects the community interests. There will always be new challenges in life, but when there are effective systems and a vibrant vision in place, challenges often become new opportunities. Discipline is the ability to stick with a plan, even while adjusting it accordingly. This kind of hope and optimism is a catalyst for success.”

Mundell said that a culture “of possibility and solutions” grew out of the areas of focus that the district learned to prioritize during his tenure. 

The district’s roughly $16 million capital project, which the board and district residents voted to approve in 2017, and began in 2019, was a reflection of these new priorities by redesigning classrooms to increase collaboration among students, bringing in new technology like Promethean boards, and centering on mental health. Last year, the district became the first in the state to receive trauma-skilled accreditation.

The challenge of the building project, along with the pandemic, which took hold just as the work was coming to end, solidified the culture of the school, Mundell said. 


Next steps

Mundell told The Enterprise that he and his wife intend to remain in the area, and stay involved with the community.

“Being an educator is in my DNA, so I anticipate having some kind of voice,” he said. “Retirement will give us flexibility of time we have never had before, but I suspect that I will want to keep my mind in the field to pay forward the professional and academic experience and knowledge I have accumulated over thirty-nine years. What that looks like, I am not sure.”

In the meantime, he’ll be focusing heavily on family.

“Immediately, my youngest daughter will be graduating from college and my second daughter will be getting married in November,” Mundell said. “My oldest daughter and her husband are completing construction of a home near Scottsdale AZ. Taking time to enjoy those events over the next year or two is a high priority.”

As for whoever takes over as superintendent, Mundell said that the district will likely need to continue “re-designing the organization for the future through streamlined and focused staffing, while individualizing the secondary program toward full utilization of digital portfolios by each student to reflect their high school experience in preparation for life after high school. 

“The new block schedule and the resulting changes in instructional delivery over the next two years will open the path to that end goal,” he said.

Looking back, Mundell said that his time at BKW was the best of his career, and thanked the board of education and district’s faculty and staff for their work alongside him, as well as the larger school community. 

“They are the guiding light of innovation, care, and excellence for the entire organization,” he said. “The administrative team is visionary, transparent, and committed to students and this work. We have an outstanding faculty and staff, many of whom have learned new ways of working in the last nine years, and many are coming here with outstanding skills as young educators. 

“The sky is the limit. Our parents and community members have always been supportive and expressive. Our partnership has been a key to success. The BKW students are the ‘Best Kids in the World’ and they deserve the very best we can envision for their future, as well as adults who keep that focus for the long-term. It is a matter of rural equity. As I said, I am grateful for having the chance to serve and excited to see the next phases of accomplishments come forth.” 



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