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Ken Dragseth, left, and Charlie Kyte of the School Exec Connect search firm discuss findings of South Washington County School District online surveys and focus groups during a Feb. 27 School Board meeting related to the district's superintendent search. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente

Public surveys: Building trust key for next South Washington County Schools superintendent

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The next South Washington County Schools superintendent must be honest, trustworthy and well-schooled in education curriculum.

That superintendent also should make it a priority to maintain small class sizes and build trust with the community, while being aware that the greatest challenge facing the district is teachers and the public's lack of trust in the administration and concerns about class sizes.

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That snapshot of the district and its superintendent needs was captured in a recent survey of district employees, residents and students, and in focus groups convened as the District 833 School Board works to hire a new schools chief.

Results from the surveys and focus groups, conducted by the School Exec Connect consulting firm, conclude that the next superintendent will need a "deep understanding" of how students learn and a record of being a consensus builder who listens to others while also being a strong decision maker.

About 150 people participated in focus groups; another 297 responded to an online survey. The surveys showed that the district's greatest strengths are a dedicated and highly competent staff; student achievement; and sound fiscal management.

The results also highlighted the district's challenges following the board's controversial decision late last year to not renew Superintendent Mark Porter's contract.

Ken Dragseth, one of the search consultants, said the responses show a division in the community and that the public is watching to see how the administrative change works out.

"There is support for the current superintendent, and others saying, 'let's move on,'" Dragseth said.

Survey results suggested the greatest challenges facing the district are a lack of trust in administration; large class sizes; balancing well-rounded education with the need to achieve high test scores; school board governance; closing the achievement gap among student groups; keeping up with technology; staff morale; and communication and transparency with stakeholders.

Nearly one-third of respondents said the lack of trust in administration is the district's greatest challenge.

Responses varied among the groups.

For instance, nearly 60 percent of survey respondents identified themselves as district staff, including teachers. For that group, large classes, lack of trust in the administration and closing the achievement gap are the district's top challenges.

Parents had different concerns. More than one-third of the 100 parents who responded said school board governance was the district's greatest challenge, followed by a lack of trust in the administration and large class sizes. District residents and business leaders had similar concerns.

There was one unifying message among different groups, Dragseth said, and that is a belief that the next superintendent needs to focus on curriculum instruction.

"I think someone coming in here is going to have to have that background," Dragseth said.

School Board members have their own ideas for skills the next superintendent should possess. Marsha Adou and others stressed the value of previous experience as a building principal or administrator.

Tracy Brunnette said the superintendent needs to be willing to make changes and lead a district that should be more "agile" and ready to make changes needed to keep students competitive.

"We need to be more proactive," she said.

The board accepted the survey and focus group findings at a Feb. 28 meeting. The information will be used as the search consultants gather applicants. Dragseth said the consultants plan to have a group of applicants at the district May 5 for interviews. That will be followed by lengthy interviews with two or three finalists before the board makes a hire.

Despite an at-times rocky period for the school board and district, the search consultants are optimistic about District 833 landing a skilled, effective superintendent.

There is no school district where everything is perfect, said Charlie Kyte, one of the search consultants.

"Anybody coming into jobs of this size knows that there's conflict," he said. "The question that they always have to ask themselves is: 'Is it solvable?'"

"I actually think here it is, very much so," Kyte said.

The next superintendent should...

The unofficial summary of an online survey and focus groups says the next District 833 superintendent should be:

-- Be a proven educational leader who has a deep knowledge of curriculum and instruction with an emphasis on teaching 21st century skills and raising achievement for all students

-- Be a person who is honest, trustworthy, transparent and has high integrity in all relationships

-- Have excellent communication skills with the board, staff, students and community; articulate speaker and writer, listens to others, open to input and is able to be the positive voice for the district promoting the district internally and externally

-- Be child-centered, visible in the schools, a strong advocate for students and understands how students learn

-- Be a collaborative consensus builder that is able to work with all stakeholders utilizing the best ideas and creativity to create success for all students

-- Be a strategic thinker who can work cooperatively and effectively witht eh board, staff and community to set short and long-term direction for the district, implement initiatives and hold himself/herself and staff accountable for results

-- Be a strong decision-maker who utilizes data and stakeholder input to guide decisions

-- Be able to work collaboratively and successfully with multiple communities and schools advocating for the unique needs of each

-- Have a strong understanding of school finance and the budget development process, able to advocate our financial needs to the Legislature and maintain financial stability in the district

-- Have been successful in building positive relationships with the board, staff, students and communities so that all students are successful

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Scott Wente
Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
(651) 459-7600
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