The Question: Search or No Search

January 20, 2019

LOWELL -- The future of Lowell Public Schools Acting Superintendent Jeannine Durkin remains unclear as the School Committee puts out a call for public input for the hiring of a permanent superintendent.

A meeting of the personnel subcommittee tentatively planned for 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 28 will seek feedback from parents and others regarding the process of hiring a replacement for former Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui. The location has not yet been announced.

The ousting of Khelfaoui by the School Committee last year -- the latest in a decade of turnover for the district -- left the district without a permanent leader and some questioning whether the district will be able to attract quality applicants in the future.

In his place, the School Committee appointed former Deputy Superintendent of Student Support Services Jeannine Durkin. She has served as acting superintendent since July 18, with no increase to her $157,075 annual salary.

One big question the School Committee needs to answer: search or no search?

A motion proposed by Mayor William Samaras and discussed during the School Committee meeting Wednesday night called for “establishing the process for the appointment and hiring” of a permanent superintendent. It did not mention initiating a “search” for a superintendent, a phrasing Samaras said was intentional.

“I want to have a discussion,” he said. “Should we have a search. What kind of a search? What are we looking for in a superintendent? What direction do we want this School Department to work in?”

However, other members of the School Committee -- including School Committee members Gerry Nutter and Robert Hoey Jr. -- say the committee should absolutely pursue a full search.

“I just feel we should open a search and find the best person we can find,” Hoey said. “I think it’s very important when you have a budget as big as ours.”

School Committee member Andre Descoteaux said he supports conversation and community input, but is also concerned about delaying the process as most district’s start advertising superintendent positions for the next school year in January.

“Waiting until the end of February is really pushing that envelope,” he said. “We need to know this by the beginning of February.”

In earlier interviews, Samaras and School Committee member Jackie Doherty have spoken favorably of Durkin’s performance, praising her handling of a short-staffed district facing difficult finances.

During the meeting Wednesday night, Hoey referenced the turn-over rate for superintendents in the district, which some have suggested will make finding a new school chief a challenge.

Chris Scott was hired for the school’s top position in 2008, but left when the School Committee did not offer her a new contract.

In 2011, Jean Franco was named superintendent. She announced her retirement in 2014, months after the School Committee voted to shorten her contract from two years to one.

Khelfaoui, started in 2015 and was terminated by the School Committee in 2018, during a process that dragged on for months.

“You might think we’re not going to have many candidates, but when someone’s salary is close to $200,000 a year I believe there’s candidates out there,” Hoey said. “They might be afraid to come to Lowell, because of the way we’ve been probably operating the past ten years, but I believe this School Committee can pick a good superintendent.”

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins