The search for a new Dolores school superintendent kicked off Monday night as a representative from the Colorado Association of School Boards visited with the board, staff and community to talk about what they hope to see in prospective candidates.
At a 21/2-hourlong special meeting, Dolores School District RE-4A board sat down with CASB representative John Merriam, following his own discussions with staff and community members. While still in a preliminary search, the board decided upon an undisclosed salary range to offer applicants and began considering the qualities and qualifications necessary to lead the district.
The discussion comes a week before Merriam, on behalf of the board, will send to CASB a draft brochure with details about the job opportunity. The brochure will be posted to advertise the vacancy.
A guiding component of the process for Merriam, who will be guiding the search, revolves around being honest with prospective candidates from the get-go, he said.
“I’m not trying to transplant somebody else’s talent, experiences and desires into you, if it doesn’t fit,” he said.
Merriam summarized for the board the priorities that community and staff members shared when he met with them earlier that day in two separate meetings – 25 staff members showed up for the 4 p.m. gathering, and 15 people came at 5:30 p.m. for the community session, he said.
In terms of qualities, the meeting attendees said they want someone who is a strong leader, a good listener and delegator, a “brilliant mediator” (not good, but “brilliant,” Merriam emphasized), and someone who would adhere to a solid chain of command. Ideally, the person would be in the middle of their career and have experience with and a thorough understanding of child development from elementary through high school levels.
Community and staff members said that a new superintendent would ideally have at least a master’s degree – though preferably a doctorate – and be proficient in grant writing. Attendees said it was important that he or she reside close enough to Dolores that they could arrive on campus within about 30 minutes, because of the need for visibility and involvement in school communities.
A big piece Merriam emphasized was the concept of a traditional versus nontraditional candidate.
“If you choose to go with a traditional candidate, we’re looking for someone who’s been through the ranks,” Merriam said. “Someone who’s been in education, public education, K-12 education, for a period of time and has a proven success record.”
A nontraditional candidate might have a business, human resources or even military background, he said. “Someone who might have parallel skills to a superintendent, in many ways,” he said.
A pro of considering nontraditional candidates is that it would open up the prospective applicant pool. However, such a hire could also be risky, and community and staff members expressed a strong preference toward more traditional applicants, he said.
Salary is a big consideration, Merriam said, and he highly recommended that the board determine a maximum salary, as opposed to leaving the window open to negotiation. While Merriam declined to share in a public forum what specific neighboring districts were paying their superintendents, but interim Superintendent Phil Kasper said annual salaries have typically ranged from about $76,000 to $115,000.
According to the Colorado Department of Education, during the 2017-18 school year, annual superintendent salaries in Montezuma County ranged from a little over $88,000 to $127,500, with Mancos paying the lowest and Montezuma-Cortez the highest. Dolores landed in the middle, at a little over $100,000.
Merriam also recommended that a superintendent’s contract with the district be multiyear, but with a termination clause allowing either party to discontinue it at any time. He also advocated for any incremental salary increase to be built into the contract.
While the specific amounts weren’t shared with the public, after whispered deliberations with one another and finance director Doreen Jones, along with a series of note-writing, trustees settled on a range they were comfortable with offering applicants, which they gave to Merriam.
In terms of community involvement with the superintendent search, the board decided to have two 11-person committees that would participate in the interview process. Trustees discussed what voices should be represented on the committees, with some advocating for more teachers and others for more parents or community members.
Board Vice President Casey McClellan was a strong proponent of including more parent voices. “It’s not often that somebody gets to pick their own boss,” he said, in defense of being heavier on parent representation over teachers.
Board President Kay Phelps disagreed. “I guess I don’t see it as picking your boss. I feel like it’s more a leader who represents a lot more than just a boss,” she said.
Ultimately, they decided that each committee should include two parents, one principal, one elementary school teacher, one secondary teacher, two community members, one classified staff member, one preschool staff member and one person from the central office.
The board has until Thursday to decide upon about 10 qualities to prioritize in the superintendent search, along with four essay questions to be included in the application. They will then pass these qualities and questions on to Merriam, for him to formulate into the job posting brochure by next Monday.
By Monday, the district plans to invite community and staff members to participate in the interview process. Applications for the committees will be due Feb. 14, with finalists selected that night at the school board meeting, most likely by lottery. Merriam will meet with the committees for a mandatory training March 5, with committee interviews set for March 26.
The board is expected to choose finalists by March 14, and must wait two weeks before declaring a new superintendent. The superintendent’s anticipated start date is July 1, according to Laurie Arnett, district secretary.