Superintendent search: Integrity, communication are top priorities for Ridgefield

What’s important to Ridgefield in a new superintendent?

According to the results of a survey of the community, “integrity” was one of the most commonly cited qualities that residents want to see in a new permanent superintendent — even trumping experience for some respondents.

The answer is a rebuke of Dr. Karen Baldwin, the district’s previous superintendent who resigned in March after she was accused of plagiarism in her memos to the Board of Education and a letter she sent home to parents following the shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February.

“I’m sure it was a response to what happened,” said Fran Walton, chairwoman of the school board.

New candidates

The board began interviewing candidates last week.

Walton declined to say how many candidates the board has for the position, but said that generally school boards interview between four to six candidates. One or two will then typically be brought back for a second round of interviews, and the board will reach out to colleagues in the candidates’ current districts to get a better sense of whom they’re hiring.

Asked about interviewing the candidates on their integrity, Walton said the board will ask how the candidates have handled new ethical challenges in the past to “tease out” their standing on ethical questions.

“Or you even ask them, ‘did you have something occur in a previous work experience where you had to address something in an ethical [framework]?’” Walton said. “Examples they use to support their answer can tell you a lot.”

Survey

The survey was conducted by Cooperative Educational Services, a Trumball-based agency hired by the school board to find candidates for the next superintendent.

A majority of the 722 survey respondents — 406 — were parents of Ridgefield students. Teachers were also heavily represented, with 187 responses. Ninety-one students contributed their feedback.

The company also ran 10 focus group meetings earlier this fall for parents, students, staff, and town officials that drew 61 participants.

The leadership profile, and the data from the survey and focus groups is available, on the district’s website.

The board hopes to have a new permanent superintendent hired by January, who will take over running the district by the beginning of March.

Dr. JeanAnn Paddyfote has been serving as interim superintendent since July.

She took over from Dr. Robert Miller, who filled in as acting superintendent shortly after Baldwin resigned through the end of the school year. Miller returned to his previous job as the district’s technology director earlier this year.

Finding the right fit

For work experience, most respondents said they want the next leader of the school district to have previous experience serving as a superintendent of schools, but a significant portion also said they valued experience as a classroom teacher or school principal.

Walton also acknowledged that in the age of social media and news stories that live forever online, examining a candidate’s background can make the board more cautious.

“Sometimes, it’s comical like the one in New Jersey,” she said, alluding to a Kenilworth school superintendent who resigned after he was arrested for allegedly repeatedly defecating on the school’s track and field.

“Superintendents can make a mistake and it has really dire consequences,” said Walton. “Does it make the board more cautious? Yes, it does.”

Some of the focus groups also raised transparency and communication as an issue, particularly around the “start times issue.”

Participants described “an apparent lack of transparency on the part of decision makers and

the view that their views were being given short shrift during discussions of this issue,” the report said.

“Trust” was another issue raised around the plan, which would see the high school start an hour later, based on research that shows adolescents get the most beneficial sleep later in the evening.

The school board plans to implement the change in the fall of 2019. But while various times have been suggested and evaluated by the superintendent’s office and board, no final start times has been established.

More work ahead

It’s not the only work that’s keeping the board preoccupied this fall.

Walton also pointed to the board’s search for a permanent principal at Scotland Elementary School, and completing negotiations with the teachers union.

Walton said the board does not currently have plans to hire a second interim superintendent to work from March through the end of the year — a possibility she raised in an interview with The Press in September.

“That only comes into play if the board can’t find a candidate that they think is the caliber for Ridgefield,” she said, making it clear that the board does currently have candidates for the position.

Ridgefield is not the only town in Fairfield County searching for a superintendent — Darien and Greenwich are also trying to fill a superintendent vacancy.

“Ridgefield is competitive, it’s a great district. It’s in a very nice town, a great place to live,” said Walton.

“I think it would always be nice to be the only district looking for a superintendent,” she added.

 

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