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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, February 4, 2010
Salary set in $175K range
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND The search is on.
Ads will be placed this week for a new superintendent for the Guilderland schools.
The school board met for two hours in an open session Tuesday night with two consultants from the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services Superintendent Charles Dedrick and Mark Jones to set a salary and work out other details of the search.
An unannounced closed meeting had been scheduled for last Tuesday but, after The Enterprise ran an editorial on Jan. 21, “When an elected board flouts the law, the public loses,” criticizing the school board for holding closed sessions in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law, the meeting was cancelled. (For the full story, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for Jan. 28, 2010 and under “Editorial” for Jan. 21, 2010.)
Proper notice was sent of the Feb. 2 meeting, which just a handful of people attended.
Guilderland’s current superintendent, John McGuire, who started working for the district on Nov. 12, 2007, surprised the school board in November by announcing that he would be retiring on July 1, 2010, after just two-and-a-half years.
Tuesday’s meeting started with Lynne Wells presenting research she had done on superintendent transitions for her doctoral degree at Sage. It ended with a review of a timeline Dedrick termed “aggressive.”
Applications must be postmarked by May 2 for first-round interviews in early May. Top candidates are to be interviewed by the board in early June with an appointment made that month so that the new superintendent can begin work in August or September.
The board may decide to hire an interim superintendent if a permanent candidate can’t be found in time.
The process will start this week with online and print advertising that can be placed now that a salary range is set, Dedrick said.
The seven board members at Tuesday’s meeting were divided on salary, but five of them a majority of the nine-member board agreed to an annual salary in the $175,000 range, commensurate on experience.
McGuire, who has been an educator for nearly 40 decades, came to Guilderland after three years as superintendent of the Greenwich schools in rural Washington County. He was 60 at the time and was paid $164,000 his first year. He replaced Gregory Aidala, who was 56 at the time, and retired with a salary of $150,000.
“This is a big, complicated district…You want to attract the best people,” Dedrick advised the board. “If you make the salary high enough, tons of people will apply. If you make the salary low enough, no one will apply.”
Board member Emilio Genzano pointed out that superintendents’ salaries are a matter of public record. He recommended not advertising a salary figure, arguing that applicants who were interested could research the Guilderland and the Suburban Council salaries.
Dedrick said that districts in Westchester and on Long Island often advertise salaries using just the word “competitive.”
A lot of districts in the area pay more than $175,000, said board President Richard Weisz. “I’d rather be honest up front,” he said.
Echoing Dedrick’s earlier assertion that the chosen applicant would be in love with the district, Genzano said, “The key is falling in love.”
“But not at any price love,” said board member Colleen O’Connell.
Board member Barbara Fraterrigo said that $175,000 was too high. She suggested $160,000 and higher with experience.
Since the school budget this year is $85 million, Weisz compared that to leading an $85 million company.
“The climate and culture has changed since John came on board,” said board member Julie Cuneo. “We don’t have the resources we’ve had.”
“We’re trying to have someone to deal with that,” countered board Vice President Catherine Barber.
“We’re going to ask everyone to bite the bullet,” said Fraterrigo.
“From my world,” said Weisz, “these salaries are so low, you have to get down on your knees and thank your lucky stars.”
“I would suggest you bite the bullet in future years,” said Dedrick, stating that one Suburban Council superintendent hasn’t been given a raise since being hired.
“More than job replacement”
Wells, the administrator in charge of language arts, social studies, and reading at Guilderland’s middle school, reviewed for the board the research she had done on superintendent transitions. She had focused on four different school districts; two selected in-house candidates and the other two selected external candidates for superintendent.
Wells said that succession planning is used in the health and business fields but rarely in education. “Succession planning is far more than job replacement,” she said. It keeps districts focused on the future. It means looking for people early in their careers and seeing what kind of training they need to become leaders, she said.
Successful leaders, said Wells, set direction, develop people, and re-design organizations to support teachers and students.
Startling statistics on the high turnover rate of superintendents makes it essential for districts to plan ahead, Wells’s research revealed. “Succession planning needs to become more common,” she said. The transfer of a district’s vision needs to occur from one superintendent to the next, she said, “and often that is not the case.”
Wells also cited a study that showed school boards divert their attention from policy to finding new leadership, and staff and students often feel disillusioned.
In addition to finding that public documents on succession planning were lacking, Wells also was surprised to learn that central office staff and board members have a meaningful role in the selection process but other stakeholders feel their role is not important.
The districts Wells studied had similar values in looking for leadership; they valued honesty, integrity, strength in working within the district’s culture, and a strong educational background and experience with issues the district faces.
Wells recommended that a superintendent’s plans be “part of a yearly conversation.” She also recommended that districts have a process in place.
After Wells’s presentation, which she stressed was not meant to influence the board, Weisz asked if succession planning meant creating a ladder where the superintendent knows who his successor is going to be.
Wells responded rather that there should be discussions on what works. “I found the day of the superintendent being here 30 years is no longer…The superintendent that is going to ride in on a white horse and save us...is not there,” said Wells.
Guilderland has had nine superintendents since the district was centralized in 1950. Alton U. Farnsworth was superintendent the longest a dozen years. But two others, Harold McCarthy and Peter Alland, had worked at Guilderland for decades before becoming superintendent. Most served between six and eight years, with McGuire’s stint of under three years being the shortest.
“Often the most successful searches are when a district really takes a look at itself…bringing stakeholders into the process,” said Dedrick. “Then the board attempts to match that up with the candidates.”
He contrasted that with a list of characteristics such as someone with a sense of humor, or someone who can bring up test scores.
Dedrick also said that the average age for a superintendent is 54.6 years.
“The taxpayer then has this person at a very high salary. They can retire at 55,” said Fraterrigo. The pension is typically 60 percent of the retiree’s three highest years of salary, averaged.
Fraterrigo went on, “The district then has to pay that person’s health insurance and the spouse’s health insurance. They could live to be 90.”
When McGuire was hired, his contract said that, if he retired any time after June 30, 2010, the board would provide health insurance coverage for the superintendent and his spouse for the rest of their lives. McGuire is retiring one day later on July 1, 2010.
O’Connell asked Wells if any of the boards she had studied had split votes on hiring a superintendent; Wells said she thought not. The Guilderland School Board was split, 3 to 6, on hiring McGuire with three members, including Fraterrigo, preferring another, younger candidate.
Barber asked Wells if most superintendents came from careers in education. Wells said that in California and Washington, many had military or business backgrounds, but in this region most were educators. She said that New York State required superintendents to have a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and 36 credits beyond that as well as passing two exams.
O’Connell then told “a cautionary tale” about succession planning in which an unnamed five-member school board had expected a particular in-house candidate would step up to be superintendent, but the board’s make-up changed, leaving those who favored that candidate in the minority.
“Plans can go awry,” said O’Connell “and there’s a lot of tension on this board now…The past board of education cannot bind the next one.”
“The Crown Prince Theory usually ends up with issues,” said Dedrick.
“Or it could be a crown princess,” said O’Connell.
“There are some issues with gender,” said Wells. She also said that boards would have to have an annual conversation, in July after new members take office, about the superintendency.
Dedrick advised not identifying one person as the heir apparent. Rather, he recommended discussing a succession plan as part of the board agenda, making it part of “the culture of the school.” He said, “Create a pool of candidates.”
Weisz suggested that Guilderland hold a forum, similar to the one the district uses to set its yearly priorities, to identify what specific strengths and weaknesses the district has in order to find the best candidate for superintendent. He said that members of the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee would be asked to comment at the last session on their views on the subject.
“No crown prince or princess”
“This is your search,” Dedrick told the school board members. “You’ll see all the candidates. I’m not going to hide anything.”
He also said, “I think you’re interested in an open process.”
“Yes,” agreed Weisz. “There is no crown prince or princess.”
Guilderland’s last three superintendents have come from outside the district; in the last search, there were no in-house candidates.
Dedrick led the board through a list of 10 topics on Tuesday night. In addition to indicating they would look at both internal and external candidates, the board members agreed residency in the district isn’t required although it is preferred; they would like the superintendent to live near enough to be a visible presence.
The board also agreed not to limit its search to those with doctoral degrees.
“Any time you put a filter in, it limits the people who apply,” said Dedrick, advising, “Put the filter in after.”
The board looked at a brochure, scaled back from the last search, so it will fit into a standard business-letter envelope. The sample brochure was created by the district’s communications specialist, Amy Zurlo, who will rework it as the board advises.
Barber, Fraterrigo, Genzano, and O’Connell volunteered to serve on a committee to “interface with BOCES for setting up mechanical things,” as Weisz put it. O’Connell will be “the point of contact.”
After two hours of discussion, Weisz asked if anyone wanted to “go into executive session to talk about specific personalities in the district.”
No one did. The meeting was adjourned.