Candidates know controversy

Superintendent finalists have experience dealing with tough issues

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— Like the predecessor whose job one of them may be asked to fill, finalists for the Steamboat Springs School District's superintendent job are no strangers to controversy.

The Steamboat Springs Board of Education last Friday identified Wayne Johnson of Wisconsin, Ron Ciranna of Michigan and Donna Howell of Texas as the finalists for the superintendent position vacated by Cyndy Simms, who this week moved to Mercer Island, Wash.

Though all three have experience as superintendents, it appears only Johnson and Ciranna served in that capacity within the last year.

Finalist Johnson resigned as superintendent of the Manitowoc, Wisc., Public School District in April after two years in the position.

Those two years, Johnson said, were dominated by a lengthy and contentious contract negotiations process with district teachers.

Though the process was a struggle, Johnson said he was able to "maintain good, professional relationships with people during difficult times."

In April, Johnson was named by the Herald Times Reporter newspaper as one of three finalists for the superintendent position for the Merrill School District in north-central Wisconsin. In the article, Johnson said he would strongly consider taking the position if it was offered to him.

He announced his resignation from Manitowoc the day the article appeared, though the Merrill position was later offered to someone else.

"I just wanted to explore some other opportunities," Johnson said Monday of his resignation.

Johnson's starting salary in Manitowoc was $115,000, according to a Herald Times Reporter story.

Johnson, 54, spent four years as superintendent of the Elcho, Wisc., School District before accepting the Manitowoc position in 2001. Johnson said he helped transform the Elcho School District from a failing school system into one of the state's 10 most improved districts during his four years there.

Johnson cited his experience with contract negotiations, performance and evaluation-based pay systems and policy governance as traits compatible with Steamboat's opening. He also said he looks forward to the possibility of working with Steamboat teachers and parents.

"The parents are involved, and that's what makes all the difference in the world," Johnson said. "Hopefully I'll have the opportunity to work with them."

Finalist Ciranna, 51, knew what he was getting into when he accepted an offer to become superintendent of Michigan's East Detroit Public Schools in 2000.

When Ciranna was hired, the 6,500-student district was in the midst of a corruption scandal involving a $28 million construction bond project. The scandal resulted in the indictment of two former superintendents, three school officials and a contractor, not to mention a nearly $4 million deficit. Where most saw a red flag, Ciranna said he saw opportunity.

"The bottom line is that I felt my legal, business and educational background fit right into (the situation)," Ciranna said by telephone from his Detroit-area home Monday.

Under his leadership, the district pulled itself out of debt one year ahead of its three-year plan, Ciranna said. He credited the concessions granted by district employees for the school system's ability to get back on its feet.

Recently, two East Detroit school board members requested a disciplinary hearing regarding Ciranna's conduct.

The hearing was tabled until July 10, according to a story in The Macomb Daily.

Neither school board member has publicly stated their reasons for requesting the special disciplinary hearing, the article stated. In the article, the school board's president, who is not one of the two board members who requested the hearing, said Ciranna is "doing a good job for us."

On Monday, Ciranna said he suspected the two board members might be pushing personal agendas. Regardless, he said he is disappointed in the way the situation is being handled.

"When it all comes out, I think it's going to be a matter of personalities," he said.

His current position is his first as a superintendent, Ciranna said. He was previously an attorney for the Michigan Association of School Boards and assistant superintendent for human resources for Lake Shore, Mich., Public Schools.

Ciranna's East Detroit Public Schools contract, which was extended for two years in May 2002, pays him approximately $132,000 a year, including benefits, according to a story published by The Macomb Daily.

Ciranna said he and his wife enjoyed their trip last week to Steamboat. It was his first visit to Steamboat since he skied here more than 20 years ago.

"We love Colorado," Ciranna said. "We're very outdoor people. (Steamboat) looked like a really good fit for me."

Finalist Howell is a regional vice president of operations for Edison Schools, a private, for-profit company hired by some public school districts to oversee district management responsibilities.

Steamboat School Board President Paul Fisher said the superintendent search process actively sought candidates in the private sector.

"We purposely told Ray and Associates that we wanted to cast the net more broadly than just people who have spent all of their time in public education," Fisher said.

Howell, who could not be reached for comment, has been a teacher, principal and superintendent, Fisher said.

"Her background is education," he said.

Fisher said the School Board is confident in the extensive candidate background checks performed by search firm Ray and Associates. He also said controversy is often unavoidable for superintendents.

"It's very true that these are tough, tough jobs," Fisher said. "You can be doing a great job but still make people upset on some singular issues."

The board has not planned any meetings this week to discuss the finalists, Fisher said, though an executive session may be called next week so board members can "come to agreement on how to rank these (finalists)."

Ray and Associates will begin to prepare for contract negotiations immediately, Fisher said.

The School Board wants to have a final candidate selected and offered a contract as soon as possible once the legally required waiting period of 14 days has ended, he said.

Law requires school boards to wait two weeks after publicly announcing the names of superintendent finalists before offering a contract to a single finalist.

Fisher did not rule out site visits, meaning board members could visit the home districts of the three finalists.


-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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