What Grace Period?

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Donna Howell officially takes over Aug. 8 as the new superintendent of the Steamboat Springs School District.

On paper, the School Board seems to have made a solid choice. Howell has a doctorate in education from Northern Illinois University. She has extensive experience, including 13 years as a superintendent in Lake Forest, Ill., and Burlington, Vt. -- districts that are larger than Steamboat. She has experience overseeing several schools for Edison, a private company that contracts with districts to operate public schools.

We would like to welcome her aboard and remind her she won't have much of a grace period. The school district has several pressing issues that Howell will have to begin dealing with right away.

Below are a few suggestions on how she can meet some of the challenges:

n Balance the budget. The district had to cut $400,000 from the budget this year. Given a shrinking enrollment, next year the shortfall could be greater. Everything -- class sizes, athletic programs, capital improvements, administrative staff, bus routes and more -- will be scrutinized. Because this is a new financial environment for the district, cuts will not be easy for teachers, parents and others to accept. But Howell must be firm in establishing the district's spending priorities, deciding what it can afford and cutting what it can't.

n Guide the district through the Montessori lawsuit. The Steamboat Springs School District's decision to fight efforts to establish a Montessori charter school has statewide implications. There is much at stake in the legal fight that will ensue. Losing could prove costly to the district, both in terms of legal remedies and long-term operational commitments. Howell has to be prepared to take up this cause and steer the district toward a favorable outcome.

n Unify employees. The School Board's use of policy governance has come under fire in the past year, raising issues of trust among district employees, the School Board and the superintendent. And the district can ill afford a disruption similar to last year's dispute between former Superintendent Cyndy Simms and Strawberry Park Elementary School Principal John DeVincentis. Howell has said she will be extremely visible in the schools and gather input from as many people as possible. That's a sound course of action that can help her quickly establish the working relationships with teachers, administrators, principals and support staff that she will need.

n Be flexible. Two of the five school board members who hired Howell will be gone in November. A third, Pat Gleason, could be gone, as well. Howell could find herself working for a very different School Board with a very different agenda in a few months. She should be prepared now for such a change.

Steamboat has a good school district. Howell's credentials certainly indicate she is capable of maintaining and building upon that track record. But she is taking over at a turbulent time for the district and the way in which she begins her tenure could determine her long-term success.

We wish her well.

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