With the announced retirement of Superintendent Howard Smith last month, the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns is faced with the task of finding a new leader for the first time in over a decade. Dr. Smith began his tenure in 2001, and the district he will leave when he steps down in July of 2013, as well as the state of public education in general, will be vastly different from what it was when he came to TUFSD.
“Change is being externally driven and imposed on school districts, which is a shift from a long tradition of American education as a predominantly local enterprise,” says Dr. Smith. “What, frankly, contributed a little bit to the acceleration of my thinking of moving on was an increasing role of the State government and to some extent backed up by the Federal government, in coming in and setting the agenda. We look at our goals for the coming year, for example, and probably two-thirds of them are externally driven.”
“This sea of change in education requires a new breed of superintendent, something of which the Board of Education is well aware, says Board President Joe Lillis. “There’s the tax cap and the movement to the Common Core standards and this new [APPR] performance appraisal system that’s pretty dramatic in scope. We’re just at the beginning stages of all three of those initiatives, so we’re going to need somebody who can come in and continue the effort that we’ve begun already…on all three of those fronts.”
In addition to the issues facing every public school district in New York State, The Public Schools of the Tarrytowns offers its own unique challenge to an incoming administrator. “In terms of our school district, the ongoing challenge in a nutshell, I think, is trying to ensure that it is a set of schools that can serve the needs of children regardless of what background, what set of circumstances they walk in the door with, which as we all know, can be remarkably diverse,” says Dr. Smith.
To help find worthwhile candidates, the Board of Education will hire outside help, and will rely on a great deal of communication with every segment of the community. “The process will be that once the Board decides on a consultant or a search committee, then before they even look for a superintendent they will go to every part of the community,” explains Board of Education Trustee Mimi Godwin, who will be heading up the search committee. “We’re going to listen to the community and find out what the community wants.”
After interviewing different firms and consultants over the summer, the Board of Education will decide on one by their August meeting. At that point, the chosen firm will begin a series of meetings with all segments of the community, including The Chamber of Commerce, the district’s unions, the Board of Education, senior groups, the LIFE Center and the Hispanic community, parent and PTA groups, and students. They will also hold open, transparent meetings for all to attend to give everyone a chance to voice their thoughts on what sort of individual is needed to head the district. Beyond that, anyone is welcome to contact the Board of Education directly. “People can always send us an email, we’re always available to discuss things,” says Lillis. “It’s a small community. When people want to tell me something, they pick up the phone.”
The goal is to hire a new superintendent by February, so that he or she has enough time to transition into the new position, learn the district, meet the various stakeholders, and hit the ground running when they formally assume the position on July 1, 2013. One of the first tasks of the new superintendent will be to hire a new Assistant Superintendent to replace Dr. Barbarann Tantillo, who is also leaving the district.
When Dr. Smith was hired in 2001, the Board of Education made a conscious decision to seek someone with previous Superintendent experience. While no formal decisions regarding desired qualifications will be determined until the search firm has spoken with the community, it is a good bet that a candidate with previous experience will have a leg up in the process. “You have to have your first superintendency somewhere,” says Dr. Smith, “but I don’t see a district like this as a starter superintendency for someone… I would say in general, someone who has operated at that level [prior experience as a district superintendent] is better positioned to meet the demands that they’ll face [in Tarrytown].”
The unique makeup of the district may also play a factor in finding the right match. “We’re a very diverse district,” says Ellen Kaplan, school psychologist at Sleepy Hollow High School and president of the Teachers’ Association of the Tarrytowns. “I think someone who has had an opportunity to have worked in a diverse district such as ours would have a plus next to their name.” Lillis agrees. “We have a community that has multiple facets to it, so ideally somebody would have some prior exposure to that. Is it a requirement? I don’t think it’s a requirement, but it would be helpful.”
Whoever is chosen to guide the district, he or she will have their hands full from the start. The state of public education in New York and the nation demands that a superintendent be an active advocate for the children in their district. “I certainly would love someone that would be able to hold their head up and do some of the pushing back [on Albany and Washington], because I think education is being blamed for stuff that really we have no control over,” says Kaplan. “I would love someone who would defend the district to the ends of time and work within the confines of what they’re able to do to stop some of the mandates.”
“Certainly someone who can find a way to have a positive frame of mind around the new realities in public education, particularly in New York State, will be critical,” says Dr. Smith. Lillis adds, “The
educational leadership issues that arise in dealing with the new performance appraisal system and the new Common Core standards [will be key]. I think the community at large will be looking for some pretty strong educational leadership as opposed to, say, a superintendent who is more managerial in his approach to the world.”
While the search for a new superintendent is just beginning, the people of the district are already putting together their wish lists. “I would love someone who can appreciate all that we have here that’s so spectacular,” says Kaplan, who has worked in the district for over 30 years. “Someone who would come in and really learn the district and understand the needs of the district and really look things over before he or she made any changes, because I really feel that we’re exceptional.”