By Kevin Kelley
Only 12 residents attended two public meetings last week designed to solicit input on the Westlake City Schools’ search for a new superintendent.
Current Superintendent Dan Keenan announced April 3 that he is leaving to become the executive director of the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation, an educational nonprofit based in Cleveland. The Board of Education hopes to name a successor by mid-July.
At the meetings, held at the district’s Performing Arts Center, consultant Richard Caster, of the Ohio School Boards Association, asked attendees to list the major challenges the district faces during the next three to five years.
One noted challenge, the need to manage finances well and obtain voter support for operating levies, might be applicable to most public school districts in Ohio. Another challenge, the need to adjust to the Common Core academic standards and associated standardized testing, is also being faced by school districts across the country. Yet another, the need to finalize the district’s facilities plan, would not be surprising to most Westlakers, given that the district opened a new high school and middle school this past fall. The new buildings comprised Phase I of the district’s facilities plan. Phase II, which would require voter approval to fund, would address the district’s elementary schools.
One attendee said the next superintendent will need to improve the relationship between the school district and the city of Westlake. Caster, said the need to improve the relationship was a common theme he heard while working on the superintendent search. He also met last week with other district stakeholders, such as teachers and other district employees.
Is the relationship between the school district and city in need of mending?
Mayor Dennis Clough said no.
“I will be emphatic about this,” Clough told West Life. “We have a great relationship together. We have for many years.”
Clough noted he has met at least monthly with Keenan and said he looks forward to doing so with whoever is selected to succeed him. The mayor pointed out that the city’s service department sells salt and gas to the district at no markup. Any perception about the relationship being sour is wrong, Clough said.
Some, particularly board of education member Tony Falcone, have criticized Clough and City Council members for not publicly endorsing the two operating levies that failed last year. In response to criticism, council President Mike Killeen said council has an informal policy of not endorsing issues or causes as a body. He noted that the city pays for the school resource officer at the middle school and high school and for the D.A.R.E. Program. Clough said any tax increase has to win on its merits as argued by the entity proposing it.
School board President Carol Winter said she would have liked to have city leaders support the operating levies. “Continual failures of levies will hurt the entire city,” she told West Life.
But outside of that issue, Winter said the overall relationship between the city and district is good. Keenan did a good job at maintaining that relationship, she said.
Winter said that as the city and district conduct independent but nearly simultaneous reviews of their recreational and educational facilities, respectively, there may be opportunities for collaboration.
“There are lots of ways that we can work together,” she said.
As for the qualifications of superintendent, attendees at the May 7 public meeting differed on some issues. One man said possession of a doctoral degree was a prerequisite, while others said it was not necessary. When one man said the next leader should resist high-stakes testing of students, a woman replied, “I wouldn’t expect the superintendent to buck the state of Ohio.” When one attendee said she didn’t want a “yes man,” another asked if she wanted a rabble-rouser.
When Caster asked if they would accept someone who had retired elsewhere as a superintendent, one response was that the district shouldn’t hire “someone on the back end of his career.” Attendees were split on whether they wanted someone with experience as a superintendent.
One woman described her ideal candidate this way: “Someone who has negotiation skills and can deal with the tough issues.”
Another attendee said the district’s next leader needs to be skilled at modern-day communications, such as social media methods, particularly against the district’s critics.
“There needs to be a realization that newsletters are not necessarily the most effective means of communications,” she said.