School chief gets to know staff, her job

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Walls once covered with posters, framed diplomas and a collection of newspaper clippings stand bare inside a corner office previously occupied by Cyndy Simms.

The furniture that remained has been rearranged, and a handful of diplomas and plaques hang -- admittedly too far apart -- from a lone wall in this, Superintendent Dr. Donna Howell's, new territory.

Howell welcomes visitors into her office with a smile and offers a chair next to, not in front of, her desk. She prefers people feel as though she is talking with them, not at them.

A list naming each member of the Steamboat Springs School District's administrative team sits on her desk, with a checkmark penciled next to the names of those she already has met.

"I feel it's more effective for people to get to know me on a one-on-one basis rather than a group setting," Howell said Friday.

It's all part of the getting-to-know-you process that began last week when she spent evenings attending District Accountability Committee and Education Fund Board meetings, even though both fell several days before her official Friday start date.

The getting-acquainted process is one she welcomes after two years with Edison Schools, where she served as a regional vice president overseeing schools in Texas, Kansas and Missouri.

Her duties with Edison Schools often took her to four metropolitan cities across three states in the span of a week, "which gets tiring after a while," Howell said. "What you really don't have (when working for Edison Schools) is a sense of community, and that's why I really started to look for some options out there."

The former superintendent of school districts in Burlington, Vt., and Park Forest, Ill., Howell came across Steamboat's opening in an issue of Education Week. The position seemed to fit, she said.

"I was looking for an opportunity in a quality school district and in a community where we'd feel welcome," Howell said. "What's important to me and my husband is quality of life. This is just a good match for me. I'm really pleased."

As is her husband, David, a retired University of Vermont professor and author of university textbooks in statistics, Howell said.

"We like to hike, bicycle and ski," she said. "He's better at downhill; I like to cross-country."

David Howell will remain in Austin, Texas, until the sale of their home closes later this month. In the meantime, Donna found a home here that will go to closing Sept. 3, to which she can't help but reveal an ear-to-ear smile.

"My home is a place for solitude and respite because this is a very demanding job," Howell said. "I already know in my mind where everything is going to go (in my new home)."

She said she's prepared for the demands, as well as the public spotlight that comes with the high-profile position.

"I'm comfortable in dealing with the issues," Howell said.

Those issues include the incompleted Knowledge and Skills-Based Pay system, a looming court battle over a Montessori charter school and small class size, among others.

"I think my strong experience base prepares me well for this superintendency," she said, referring in part to her work implementing charter schools and designing merit pay plans.

Still, she admits there are many things to learn and adjust to. Living in a place that requires a post office box is just one of those things.

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