Our View: Steamboat Springs School Board should seek interim hire
April 16, 2011
Steamboat Springs — Steamboat Springs School District again will have turnover in its superintendent position. Instead of immediately looking for a permanent replacement for Shalee Cunningham, the School Board instead should seek an interim hire until later this year.
Cunningham is the sole finalist for the superintendency of the Novato Unified School District in Marin County, Calif. It's an obvious position for her to take — she's from that area, and three of her four adult children live there, as do some of her grandchildren. The Novato School Board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the contract offer, something that seems a mere formality at this point. Cunningham would continue working in Steamboat until the end of June.
Cunningham's departure would be a substantial loss for the Steamboat Springs School District. Hired in April 2008, she's brought stability to a school system that, although successful academically, was badly in need of it. She's guided the district through tremendous financial challenges and streamlined the district's administrative team, including eliminating the director of curriculum and instruction position and combining the director of transportation and director of facilities positions. Cunningham also has earned the praise of most teachers and parents — no small feat in a community as passionate about its public education system as Steamboat is.
Come Tuesday, the school district again will find itself in need of a new leader. The district has had four superintendents since 2003 — Cyndy Simms, Donna Howell, Sandra Smyser and Cunningham. Simms left after a lengthy but tumultuous tenure, including a very public spat and eventual mediation with then-Strawberry Park Elementary School Principal John DeVincentis. Howell was with the district four years before accepting a contract buyout from the School Board, which cited a rocky working relationship with Howell that could not be mediated by outside professionals. Smyser was the interim superintendent hired to fill in after Howell's departure, and she was a finalist for the permanent job when she instead accepted the superintendency of Eagle County School District.
Preparing last week for Cunningham's potential departure, the School Board met to discuss a transition process, including whether to fill the position with an interim superintendent or immediately begin the search for a full-time replacement.
Given advice from the Colorado Association of School Boards that the best time to find the most qualified superintendent candidates isn't until fall, and because there could be turnover on the School Board after the November elections, it seems the choice is clear: Find a strong interim replacement and then launch a nationwide search in early fall. And make sure what we're paying our superintendents is competitive with what other districts similar to ours offer their leaders.
We've seen what can happen when an elected board hires or extends the contract of a superintendent before an election that brings in a new group of bosses with a different agenda. We also know the Steamboat Springs School District is fortunate to have fantastic building principals and a strong staff.
An interim replacement — perhaps hired from within — who can continue to guide the district through difficult financial times while allowing the principals and staff to lead the way in the classrooms might be the best solution. Then, let the new School Board make a more permanent hire in fall. And who knows? Maybe that internal candidate becomes the best long-term fit for our community.
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