Lebanon Schools Face Big Hiring Task

Lebanon — It’s graduation season in the Upper Valley, when people involved with schools typically take time to look back and celebrate. Officials in the Lebanon School District, however, may not have the luxury to indulge for too long in retrospection. The resignation of three key administrators has left them much work to do.

In April, Superintendent Gail Paludi announced her intention to leave. Earlier this month, a surprised School Board accepted the resignations of Lebanon High School Principal Nan Parsons and Business Administrator Jim Fenn.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we find qualified people,” said School Board Chairman Jeff Peavey, in an interview on Tuesday.

As if hiring three top administrators weren’t difficult enough, the Lebanon School Board faces additional challenges. For starters, its plan to quickly hire an interim superintendent to give them time to find a permanent replacement was delayed when no qualified candidates applied during the first round, said Peavey.

The search for an interim superintendent was re-opened on June 5, according to the job posting on SchoolSpring.com. Now, the district is accepting applications for the position through June 20. Paludi’s last day is June 30, and the scheduled start date for her interim replacement is July 1. A new principal is supposed to start on the same day.

The district has more time to find a new business administrator, but not much: The start date for that person is Aug. 1.

Beyond the significant challenge of filling three key positions on a tight schedule lies a more fundamental problem: The pool of superintendent candidates is shrinking.

Ted Comstock, executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, said there is a shortage of superintendents across the state. School administrators may be discouraged from moving up to the superintendency because it’s difficult, potentially controversial and offers less job security than other positions, he said.

Several New Hampshire superintendents are retiring this year, and many administrators now end their careers as principals or assistant superintendents rather than continuing to move up the ladder, he said.

“We’ve been in this pattern for several years now,” he said. “(The) natural pool has largely disappeared.”

Peavey echoed those observations, attributing the difficulty of finding a good replacement to the demands of the job: Long hours and stress discourage people from working in school administration, he said.

Fenn , whose salary for the year is $92,908, alluded to one of those factors last week when he said he would be taking a job in the Upper Valley’s private sector. After spending much of his career in the public sector, including nine years in Lebanon, he won’t regret not having to attend night meetings, he said.

Board member Hank Tenney said the board “sometimes overloads our administration in asking for too much.” But that is the board’s responsibility, he said — to push for more from the school district.

“We want, we want, we want,” he said.

Paludi is one of the increasingly uncommon administrators who followed what used to be a traditional career path. During her four decades in education, she worked as a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent before advancing to the top job in Lebanon.

The board’s vice chairman, Bob McCarthy, said Paludi did a “good job” during her four years in Lebanon and will be hard to replace, in part, because she was “underpaid.” She started in Lebanon at a salary of $110,000, and is earning about $115,000 this year, Fenn said when Paludi announced her resignation.

McCarthy predicted that the district will have to pay its next superintendent more.

In the short term, Peavey said, the School Board hopes to find an interim superintendent with experience in managing contract negotiations because contracts with the Lebanon Education Association and Lebanon support staff are coming up for discussion in the fall.

Peavey said he also hoped to find someone with a strong background in assessment and evaluation to work with Christine Downing, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, in determining whether the district’s programs are effective.

He said Paludi had begun working with teachers and administrators to implement a form of standards-based assessment, known as Marzano, and he hoped her successor would continue that process.

The School Board plans to kick off the search to fill the permanent superintendent position with a workshop on June 23 to discuss its goals and begin to define the characteristics of the right person for the job.

Next month, the board will interview search firms to find the right one to help guide the search for the district’s next permanent leader. Peavey estimated a consultant would cost the district between $12,000 and $20,000.

Former School Board member Laura Dykstra recalled the search the board conducted to hire Paludi after longtime superintendent Mike Harris told the School Board of his plan to resign in October 2009.

The School Board subsequently hired search consultant Richard Ayers of the Educational Design Group to guide it through the process, beginning with a self evaluation to help the board define what characteristics they would like the new hire to possess. The board was particularly looking for someone with strengths in the area of curriculum development, Dykstra said in an interview on Tuesday.

Ayers then recruited candidates who seemed to fit the board’s criteria and brought a short list back to the district, she said. A search committee composed of district staff conducted interviews and chose three finalists.

Finally, the board interviewed the remaining candidates in a day-long Saturday session, asking each the same series of questions, Dykstra said.

The entire process took five months; the School Board announced Paludi’s hiring in March 2010, and she took Harris’ place July 1.

Because the board is composed of public members, many without a background in education, Dykstra felt it was “wise to hire a consultant to work with us.”

Like Ayers, the School Boards Association offers assistance to boards undertaking administrator searches.

Comstock recommended that boards begin a search by clearly defining what they are looking for.

“For each one of those positions, it’s not just a matter of having the qualifications,” said Comstock. “The key is to find that one right person to fit the needs and aspirations of a particular place. Not everybody that is qualified can necessarily do that.”

The timing of the three new hires depends on the quality of the applications the district receives, said Peavey.

In a “more perfect world,” said Comstock, the superintendent would play a “pivotal role” in the hiring of the high school principal and business administrator because he or she will be responsible for the other two.

Tenney agreed that would be “the logical thing to do,” but said that factoring in the time constraints the board will have to hire the qualified person who comes along first.

Comstock said the process of hiring a district’s top administrators is daunting and challenging, but he advises boards “to take a deep breath or two, plot out a strategy and generally things work out well.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.