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Tuesday, October 15 News

Woog’s World / Superintendent and principal wanted

Wanted: one superintendent of schools.

Also: one high school principal.

The two jobs are open for the second time in three years. Superintendent Colleen Palmer resigned in March, one week after principal James D’Amico announced he’s heading to New Fairfield High, his alma mater.

Both positions are high-profile, high-power, and hugely important. One sets the educational priorities — and the budget — for the entire school district. The other sets the tone and tenor for the district’s flagship school. The men and/or women who fill both posts have an enormous influence on every Westporter — parents, students, and those with no connection to the school system whatsoever.

And, because this is education, they have an enormous influence on the future of our country.

Who do we want in these positons? God would be great, but He is otherwise occupied. So we are let with mere mortals. They’ll have to do.

That’s fine. In the long history of Westport schools, we’ve had many more hits than misses.

Our next superintendent of schools — after our current excellent interim, Dr. David Abbey, fills the gap — should be someone with a deep understanding of education today. The winds of change buffet our schools in ways Horace Mann (or Horace Staples) could never have imagined.

Charter schools, magnet schools, online learning — all are shifting the ways in which teachers teach and students learn. Technology — inside the classroom, and in daily life — has been a boon to education. And a bane.

Looming over all that is the statewide debate over regionalization. Our next superintendent must understand all those challenges. He should embrace change, but not be beholden to it.

And whatever she believes, she must be able to articulate it clearly, passionately and powerfully.

Our new superintendent must know the many constituencies in Westport, or be a quick study of them. Families with young kids who just arrived from New York; parents who themselves went through this school system; empty nesters whose own children are long graduated; young singles renting apartments in Saugatuck or Bedford Square — they are just part of the mosaic of townspeople (and taxpayers) with skin in the school game.

Westport has funded its school system well for decades. But every budget is a blueprint, made up of priorities, tradeoffs, compromises, dreams, and dreams deferred. The person who creates the school budget balances many competing demands. Once she’s done that, she must be able and willing to fight hard for it, before town officials and in the court of public opinion.

Much of the new superintendent’s time and attention will be taken up by middle school issues. They are complex and interconnected. The fate of Coleytown Middle School may be decided soon, but related questions — grade alignment, redistricting, the optimal use of buildings and resources — may not.

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Middle school is a crucial and often overlooked time. Hard decisions must be made but not in a vacuum. The decisions our new school leader makes about those matters will be scrutinized closely, and have implications for decades to come. Communication during, and after, the process is key.

Of course, every leader is a reflection of his staff. The administrative team that will surround and support our chief will in large part determine her success. Cronies are not good. Neither are sycophants, rogues or bureaucrats. Whoever moves into the Town Hall office should be able to choose wisely, and well, whenever a vacancy needs filling.

The superintendent of schools wields tremendous power, but she serves at the behest of the Board of Education. They hire (and fire). They approve (or reject) the budget. They are a broad check and balance on the countless decisions made every day by their — and the town’s — most well-compensated employee.

Diplomacy, tact, organization, communication — a school superintendent needs all the skills necessary to work for a boss. Or, in this case, seven bosses.

Westport’s next superintendent must have tremendous energy. Those Board of Ed meetings take tons of time. So do meeting with administrators, teachers, union reps, lawyers, parents, colleagues, Rotary Clubs; and attendance at plays, concerts, games, random events and more, at eight very active and high-expectation schools.

Finally, the lucky (and I mean that sincerely) person who is chosen to lead the Westport school system for the next (hopefully) many years must be able to predict (with 100 percent accuracy) the weather. No decision is more closely scrutinized than calling — or not — a snow day or early dismissal.

So maybe we do need God after all. But if She is unavailable, let’s get the next best person.

The next “Woog’s World” will explore the qualities we look for during our high school principal search.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.

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