Searching for a New Superintendent for Gilbert Public Schools

Choosing the next superintendent is perhaps the most important challenge any school board member faces. The board must find someone who has experience, who has knowledge, and who can be a leader with a vision of how to work with the community for the benefit of all students, and with the support of all constituents. Gilbert Public Schools is a long, long way from that goal now.

A key element of the relationship with the new superintendent is that the board is accountable to the community as they select the top administrative leader of Gilbert Public Schools. The new superintendent must acknowledge that s/he is accountable to the board for fulfilling the mission of Gilbert Public Schools. That relationship has been skewed in recent years with a board that appeared to rubber-stamp any recommendation the GPS superintendency made. The result is a community that’s now divided between supporting the board or supporting the administration. That divide was and is unnecessary.

A theme has emerged: many citizens do not think that GPS leadership is listening to them or is attuned to their concerns. This has led many to distrust the district, to view GPS negatively and dismiss the district’s many accomplishments. While searching for a new superintendent, the board should review the district’s strengths and weaknesses, identifying areas needing immediate focus and those requiring more long-range planning. Last year’s ham-fisted attempt to close Gilbert Junior High School maligned the GPS strategic plan; whether trust can be regenerated remains  uncertain, especially following criticism of the plan’s six-figure cost as funds declined for the district during the recession. The theme song for the loss of Gilbert’s good reputation could have been Killing Me Softly: “I heard he sang a good song, I heard he had a style, and so I came to see him and listen for a while.”

Looking back at how Dave Allison was selected as Superintendent of Gilbert Public Schools, it’s easy to see that the seeds of secrecy and “good old boys” contributed to his rise to the top.

Dave Allison is the new superintendent of Gilbert Public Schools, ending a quick internal search that lasted less than three months. Despite local criticism that the board should have sought outside applicants, board members said they limited the search because they had a strong set of candidates who already work for GPS.

In return for rewarding a good old boy brought up through the ranks, GPS ended up with Barb VeNard, a failed budget override, division within the community and now, a search for a superintendent who can reverse the district’s reputation for retaliation against employees and selection of administrators based on nothing more than gut instinct. Basically, GPS got what it paid for with its selection of a superintendent behind closed doors over the objections of the community. Thanks, Helen Hollands, the board president who selected Dave Allison as superintendent. The theme song for this period in GPS history should be The Way We Were: “What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.”

That decision cost GPS a lot. GPS lost the services of Gayle Blanchard, now Superintendent for the J.O. Combs School District and Ken James, now principal of Basha High School (Chandler Unified School District), which has been recognized by Newsweek magazine for 2 consecutive years as one of America’s best High schools. Ken James’s campus includes the Basha High Accelerated Middle School for Grades 6-8, a program which GPS might consider emulating if it wants to become competitive again:

Basha High principal Ken James said he came up with the idea for The Accelerated Middle School because of the quest by schools for students. “It came about because of the competition out there of schools. You have to offer something unique to meet all the needs of all the families,” James said. “There’s not another high school out there that has sixth, seventh and eighth grades on campus.” …“We want them here sixth to 12th grade,” he said. The message is getting out. Students came from within and outside the district borders.

Let’s look forward to what the community really wants in a superintendent. Gilbert citizens have a terrific opportunity with the forums being held to solicit community input on characteristics desired for the next GPS superintendent:

Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Desert Ridge High School – Cafeteria 10045 E. Madero, Mesa 85209 6:30 p.m.
Mesquite High School – Cafeteria 500 S. McQueen, Gilbert 85233 6:30 p.m.

Thursday, March 28, 2013
Highland High School – Cafeteria 4301 E. Guadalupe Road, Gilbert 85234 6:30 p.m.
Campo Verde High School – Library 3870 S. Quartz Street, Gilbert 85297 6:30 p.m.

For policy wonks, the Arizona statute about school district superintendents is A.R.S. 15-503. Superintendents, principals, head teachers and school psychologists; term of employment; evaluation; contract delivery; nonretention notice.  Basically:

If the governing board employs a superintendent, the governing board shall determine the qualifications for the superintendent by action taken at a public meeting.
B. The term of employment of superintendents may be for any period not exceeding three years…

There’s also a simplistic slide show from Arizona School Board Association about how the superintendent and the board work together.  Specific details about ideas that really work can be reviewed here: A Superintendents’ Blueprint for Better Schools. One of the stories is about a district where voters recalled school boards faster than schools could be built. For Vail School Board President Anne Gibson to suggest that success could arise out of the tumult was what management consultants call a big hairy audacious goal.  Calvin Baker, superintendent of the Vail Unified School District, and his fellow administrators were taken aback but they didn’t try to hush Gibson.  She in turn didn’t stop talking about it; soon Gibson’s ambitions for the school district paid off.  The Vail Unified School District was ranked by the state Department of Education as the top large school district in the state of Arizona in 2011 and again in 2012.

“Communities and schools are unavoidably linked to each other,” Baker says.  “It’s almost impossible to have an outstanding school without an outstanding community, or to have an outstanding community without an outstanding school.”

We applaud the governing board’s decision to view community engagement as a proactive opportunity to strengthen Gilbert Public Schools by involving more citizens while working to understand their needs, concerns and expectations for their schools. It’s a great way to focus efforts on the best ways to support children, their education, the school system and the community. The theme song for this could be Searching:

I asked the wise man one sunny day
Can you help me find my way?
You’re so much older and wiser too
Would you help me Mr. Wise Man
I’m feelin’ blue, oh I’m not satisfied

Westie highly recommends INTEGRITY as the first characteristic that’s absolutely essential for a new GPS superintendent. Everything else pales in comparison. Without integrity, the trust and collaboration necessary to succeed in the future won’t happen. Without integrity, you get what GPS has become: a good old boys club that enriches a few through retaliation against anyone who crosses them. GPS cannot succeed without employees who are energized, engaged and feel valued; the superintendent will have to set a new direction and example for her/his direct reports. Repairing the damage done will take more than feel-good talk. The new superintendent will have to walk the walk. Gilbert Public Schools needs to return to its roots.


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