Editorial: A big challenge for MV officials
Consider the remarkable strides made by the Merrimack Valley School District in recent years:
The high school has been fully renovated. Penacook got a new elementary school.
The district embraced the International Baccalaureate program as a way to increase academic rigor in its schools. MV opened the CSI Charter School for students who dropped out of high school and want another shot at earning their degree. It opened the TEAMS Charter School for students interested in technology, engineering, math and science.
In a smart move to save money, the district switched several large buildings from oil heat to wood chips.
And district officials are now conducting a study on the costs and benefits of full-day kindergarten, with the hope of putting the idea before voters in March.
In other words, improvement has been steady, creative and broad. That’s why the district’s choice of a new superintendent is so critical. And because it comes at a time when terrific candidates are scarce, it becomes all the more difficult. Our advice to the search committee: Don’t settle.
Superintendent Mike Martin, who serves Merrimack Valley and Andover, will retire after this school year. A committee tasked with finding his replacement hopes to make a pick by February.
The search comes when school districts not only in New Hampshire but also across the country are facing a shrinking number of qualified applicants for such posts. In 2011 a survey by AASA, the School Superintendents Association, found that 50 percent of working superintendents planned to retire by 2016. Many are simply reaching retirement age. Others have decided to retire early or switch careers after being forced to make unpopular budget decisions as a result of the economic recession: cuts in staff, increased class sizes, elimination of programs – or, alternatively, tax increases.
And consider the complexity of the job. Superintendents are responsible for the overall quality of education and preparedness of their graduates. They’re CEOs of big, complicated organizations that typically include bus systems, food service and sometimes construction oversight – areas that talented young educators don’t necessarily dream about. They have to answer not only to elected school board members but also the public at large.
There are some signs of hope. Recently, for instance, the superintendents organization launched a national superintendent Certification Program, an 18-month training course for new school-system administrators. Participants will be matched with mentors and trained in finance, business management, operations and teaching. They’ll work on the other hard part of the job, too: communications and politics. For superintendents who rise to the top of their field after starting as teachers or principals, such training sounds logical and valuable.
That’s a long-term solution, of course. In the meantime, Merrimack Valley needs to conduct a search now to replace Martin. Choosing a candidate with the experience, energy and savvy to keep the district on its current strong path is the most important decision community leaders will face this year. Their thoughtful deliberation and patience will be key.