October 30, 2021 | By Lisa Scagliotti

Regardless of how this week’s vote turns out on the school construction bond, the next several months have significant transitions in store for the Harwood Unified Union School District. 

The HUUSD School Board at its meeting last week spent considerable time discussing some of the details that still need to be ironed out as it prepares to launch the search for a new superintendent to replace Brigid Nease when her contract ends in June 2022. 

The board heard from Harwood Unified Education Association President Justina Boyden who asked that the committee charged with working closely on the superintendent search include educators. So far, the board has discussed only having board members participate in the series of meetings that will result in finalist recommendations to the full board which hires the superintendent.

Also on the horizon in early 2022 will be local elections to fill half the seats on the HUUSD School Board. Seven of the 14 seats on the board have terms expiring in 2022 which would be filled at the March 1 Town Meeting Day election.

At the school board’s retreat on Sept. 29, Board Chair Torrey Smith of Duxbury announced that she will not be running for re-election. Likewise, neither will Vice Chair Tim Jones of Fayston, Caitlin Hollister of Waterbury, or Jeremy Tretiak of Waitsfield, according to responses to an inquiry from Waterbury Roundabout. 

Jonathan Clough of Warren said he has not decided whether he will run again. The board’s two newest members, Scott Culver of Waterbury and Cindy Senning of Duxbury, were both appointed in July to fill vacancies. Their appointments run through the March election and both said at their appointment interviews that they intended to be on the March ballot to run for a full term. Candidates have until late January to file to run for office in the Town Meeting Day election.

The board election and superintendent transition could mean a significant shift in district leadership at the same time that a major construction effort gets under way. In addition, HUUSD’s Director of Finance and Operations, Michelle Baker, announced earlier this year that she intends to step down at the end of this school year.  

Brigid Nease speaks at Oct 27 School Board meeting via Zoom

HUUSD Superintendent Brigid Nease speaks at the Oct. 27 School Board meeting via Zoom. Screenshot

Superintendent search 

The school board is working with the national recruiting firm MacPherson & Jacobson based in Omaha, Nebraska, to lead the superintendent search with the goal of making a job offer to the candidate that emerges from the process in early February. The new superintendent would start July 1.

Many steps are to be covered in November as outlined in the board’s draft timeline for the process.  

The early steps will involve sessions Nov. 8-9 over Zoom video conference to gather input from various groups including two sessions for the general public and separate meetings for teaching staff, support staff, administrators and high school students. In each session, participants will be asked a series of questions aimed at brainstorming the qualifications people would like to see in a new superintendent. An online survey for those who cannot attend those meetings will also be available.

Meanwhile, a subcommittee of the board already has been combing through the district’s superintendent job description and contract to make recommendations for revisions to both ahead of starting the search. These documents haven’t seen substantial changes since Nease was hired in 2009. 

The board heard from the subcommittee working on the contract and job description edits at the Oct. 27 meeting and discussed various sections of each such as language around vacation days and the degree of detail and specifics they should contain. Details on the subcommittee’s work to date along with the documents and proposed revisions are contained in the leadership memo in the information packet from the board meeting

Finalizing those documents is one of several key steps the board has on the search timeline for its Nov. 17 meeting which is shaping up to be a critical one. The board also aims to review input from the Zoom sessions and survey at that meeting in order to complete its list of desired qualifications. 

That also is when the board wants to finalize the make-up of the committee that will be tasked with working closely with consultant John Gratto to review applications and do initial applicant interviews. The plan currently calls for advertising the position starting Nov. 29 with applications due by Jan. 3. 

Until last week’s board meeting, discussions of the search committee have focused on it consisting only of board members. One question has been how and whether to include student members of the school board in the search process. 

Debating search committee membership

Boyden’s request from the union representing teachers and support staff to be included challenged the search committee plan to date. 

“The primary concern is the importance of having an educational voice at the table,” Boyden said, noting the various roles a superintendent has in a school district. “The school board is well-versed in policy, budgets, and business operations. It is imperative that the interview committee also have members who are well-versed in educational practices, which are equally important to the business operations of the district.”

Boyden pointed to searches for other school personnel such as principals where community members and staff collaborate on hiring committees. “Having a committee that represents all of our communities, our teachers, our administration and our faculty shows the collaboration that we have strived and worked so hard for over the past years,” she said. 

Justina Boyden speaks Oct 27 via Zoom

Harwood Unified Education Association President Justina Boyden addresses the HUUSD School Board via Zoom on Oct. 27. Screenshot

Boyden also asked the board to consider how applicants might view the search committee. “First impressions are key. This interview process is a two-way interview. Prospective superintendents are interviewing us as much as we are interviewing them,” she said. “What message will they be receiving when they are interviewed by only school board members? A committee representative of our entire school community demonstrates that we are all in this together.”

Board members in discussing the committee makeup referred to emails they had received on the matter. Waterbury Roundabout and The Valley Reporter submitted a public records request to the school district inquiring about communications the entire board had received on the topic. 

In addition to Boyden’s comments, the board also heard from Waitsfield Elementary Principal Kaiya Korb and Harwood Union High School Co-Principals Laurie Greenberg and Meg McDonough. 

In an email on Oct. 25, Korb said she was surprised that the board would task a committee of board members only to work on screening candidates. “I believe that having a representative hiring committee is very important for not only selecting the best candidate, but engendering engagement and connection of all parties in the process. I urge the board to consider appointing a committee that includes at least one administrator and at least one staff person, as well as a student representative,” she wrote to the board. 

She noted how the district’s process for hiring principals, for example, relies on committees of staff, parents, community members and students to make recommendations. “Given that I have not heard concerns about the process we have used for hiring in the past, I wonder why we would stray from it?” Korb asked. “While I appreciate the inclusion of gathering input from stakeholders through various formats, I would feel far more represented for the values and skills I hope for from our new superintendent by having a colleague on the hiring committee.”

In a separate message to the board on Oct. 26, McDonough wrote on behalf of herself and Greenberg to echo Korb’s observations, saying that they “strongly encourage the board to consider a diverse hiring committee that reflects a multitude of perspectives from our community at large - including students and staff.” 

The board discussed the issue with some members noting that the recruitment consultant has recommended the search committee only be comprised of board members. “We’ve hired a professional consultant for a reason and we’ve gotten his guidance on what we should be doing,” said Fayston member Theresa Membrino.   

“We’re paying for his expertise and we should use it,” said Waterbury representative Caitlin Hollister.

Board Chair Smith acknowledged that there could be benefits to having individuals on the search committee other than school board members, as long as they are people who truly understand the scope of the superintendent’s job. 

“I think the vast majority of people don’t have a sense of what the superintendent’s job is and so I don’t want to spend a lot of effort getting those people into the room,” she said. “But there are two groups that I think have a strong sense of the superintendent’s job … one is the principals, and one is the union leadership who meets with the administration on a regular basis. I think their feedback could be very valuable for us.”

Smith suggested that those perspectives could be represented by two committee members.  

The board tabled a motion that would have created a search committee of board members only with the suggestion that they confer with the search consultant before making that decision. 

Background information and details on the superintendent search process have been put onto a separate page of the school district’s website, HUUSD.org under the heading Superintendent Search. 

Reprinted courtesy of Waterbury Roundabout.