Four area school districts in quest for leadership
As the school year winds down, four Danbury-area districts will enter the summer months with a new leader at their helm.
In two, New Fairfield and Region 12, new superintendents will settle into the job at the beginning of July. In the others, Ridgefield and Region 15, an interim superintendent will take over as the district continues, or starts, their search for a new schools chief.
For the most part, what the districts are searching for — or have found — is the same: an experienced, accomplished educator able to communicate and work with existing administrators and officials. But what that looks like in each district can differ based on its characteristics, current projects and even past shortfalls.
Evan Pitkoff, executive director of Cooperative Educational Services, which helped two of the Danbury-area districts and many others across the state, said this is true in most searches for a top administrator.
“They pretty much all want somebody who is a good educator, a good person, a good communicator and has handled budgets — it’s about 85 percent looking for the same type of skill-set,” he said. “But, it will often boil down to the other 20 percent of the specific needs of the district at a particular time.”
Pitkoff said having several districts at once with superintendent openings is not uncommon. Most of the time they will come in small waves as retirements are announced typically in the winter and then again in the spring as those that replaced the retirees leave their positions vacant.
But Pitkoff did say that another wave of openings toward the end of the school year, which he saw this year, is unusual. There were more abrupt departures in May and June than he’s seen in 10 years, he said.
Right now, Greenwich, Darien and South Windsor are all beginning searches as their superintendents leave for either private school jobs or relocations to other parts of the country.
Here’s a look at what’s expected of superintendents in our area:
The Ridgefield School District joins the group of “abrupt departures” with its search to replace Superintendent Karen Baldwin, who officially announced in April she would resign June 30.
Baldwin had been placed on leave a month before that, following accusations she plagiarized documents.
The Board of Education appointed an acting superintendent when Baldwin was placed on leave to serve until June 30 and then, just this week, hired former New Milford Superintendent JeanAnn Paddyfote to serve as an interim leader.
Board Chair Fran Walton said this approach will give the district “breathing room” to do a complete search process, including hiring a consulting firm and holding focus groups within the community.
The board has not discussed in detail what they will look for in a permanent candidate, Walton said. But, for the interim search, the district’s priorities and Baldwin’s sudden departure were factors.
Walton said Paddyfote’s references made it clear that going out into the community was one of her strong suits, which could benefit Ridgefield in the next few months.
“I think when you’ve had a disruption like we have, you need someone that will go out and build relationships and ease any apprehensions people may have,” Walton said.
She added, though, that the district will need to make sure the controversy surrounding Baldwin’s departure, or what shortfalls people might have thought she had, don’t dominate the search.
Other priorities, like how to deal with the upcoming challenges that school budgets are facing across the state, the impact of the federal tax bill, new state laws or even a new governor, should factor into the decision.
“You have to be careful the way you do the search; you don’t want to just react to what just happened -- but also remember what your long term strategy is for the district,” Walton said.
In New Fairfield, the district’s experience with outgoing Superintendent Alicia Roy also went into the decision to hire Region 12 Superintendent Patricia Cosentino as her replacement.
Roy announced amid controversy that she would step down when her contract expires at the end of June. She and the Board of Education, which had a turnover of the majority of its members this past Election Day, had faced mounting criticism over the last few years, including claims that there was a lack of communication both within the district and with the public.
When looking for a new superintendent, it became clear that communication and relationship-building skills — already a priority in most districts — were at the top of New Fairfield’s list.
Board of Education Chair Peggy Katkocin said it was also clear that a presence in the community even outside of the schools was something residents wanted, likely based on New Fairfield’s smallish size.
“You want to make the advances made at the big level, but keep some of the charm that attracted you to this (small town),” Katkocin said. “They want someone approachable.”
It was also apparent, she said, that Cosentino was the right choice when the board asked during interviews how candidates would handle hypothetical scenarios.
Cosentino, a former high school principal in Bethel, was able to address scenarios hypothetically — and specifically — with answers that applied to New Fairfield.
“She knew a lot about New Fairfield,” Katkocin said.
In Region 12, board members highlighted new superintendent Megan Bennett’s decision making skills, thoughtfulness, and energy when they announced her hiring in April.
The fact she had experience at every grade level was also a plus, as well as her math background given the new agriscience academy set to open that puts a focus on STEM subjects.
“We are confident Ms. Bennett has the skill set and the character traits that will fit perfectly within our regional framework,” Chairman Anthony Amato said in a press release. “In a strong applicant pool, Ms. Bennett emerged as our candidate of choice due to her commitment to children, her lifelong love of learning and her highly successful career as an educator and as an administrator.”
Bennett is now a principal at Thalberg Elementary School in Southington. Prior to that, she was a principal in Rocky Hill and Taunton, Mass. She also has experience as a mathematics coordinator, mathematics district coach and classroom teacher in Hartford.
When she accepted the position, she said she plans to promote the regional school system but also work with Washington, Roxbury and Bridgewater separately. She also promised communication and transparency.
The priorities unique to Region 15, which oversees Southbury and Middlebury, were apparent in the “challenges” section of a leadership profile developed by C.E.S. after its survey and focus groups of the community.
This section outlines which challenges that the district faces should be a priority for the new superintendent, who will replace Superintendent Regina Lemerich Botsford when she retires June 30.
The priorities seem to indicate the need to create a more collaborative culture in the district.
The profile said a public relations program and a “culture of inclusion” should be a focus with any candidate for superintendent. It also showed a declining enrollment, a growing special education population and concerns surrounding the schools’ budget to be among the public’s priorities.
Ralph Iassogna, Trumbull’s former longtime superintendent, will lead the district until a new superintendent, likely chosen by July, will take over. Board members are conducting interviews of about a dozen candidates who applied for the position, board members said.