Superintendent Vote: Community Asks ‘Now What?
By: Alex Scofield
With Superintendent Mary Ellen Johnson unlikely to remain in the district after her contract expires at the end of the next school year, the question on the tips of many townspeople’s tongues is, “Now what?”
With the school board voting Wednesday night not to renew the superintendent’s contract beyond June 2011, many residents, teachers, and administrators were left wondering what the school committee’s next move will be.
“Effectively the district now has no superintendent, no assistant superintendent or curriculum director, no special education director, and a business manager on the job less than 12 month,” said former school committee member Robert J. Guerin. “Just who [will be able to] fashion the go-forward plan?”
While the superintendent’s and special education director’s positions are technically filled for the time being, a search is on to replace interim Special Education Director Merle Montani, who is scheduled to leave the district at the end of this school year.
It is also unclear how much of a role Dr. Johnson will play in helping to plot the district’s future, given the school committee’s decision not to renew her contract.
“Who in their right mind would want to work in Sandwich after this?” asked former school committee chairman Robert F. Simmons Jr. “It will only take someone a few minutes on Google to find out what’s been done to the last two superintendents.”
Peter J. Cannone, a former Sandwich superintendent who now works with the Cape Cod Collaborative’s Center for Executive Search, said the challenge faced by the school district is difficult, but not unprecedented in other school districts.
“The school committee is going to have to get together and come up with a plan,” Mr. Cannone said. “Things happen like this in many communities. This time will pass, and the town will move on. It’s difficult being a lame duck; there’s no doubt about that. The school committee is going to have to move ahead and [Dr. Johnson’s] going to have to move ahead.”
Some community members, though, are not so sure that the schools will be able to rebound so easily from the loss of Dr. Johnson, who has worked to institute new literacy and math programs and reduce the number of special education students who are placed in out-of-district programs.
“We had hope, with Dr. Johnson,” said former school committee member S. Aleta Barton. “Hope died on Wednesday evening.”
Ms. Barton recalled the search process that preceded the hiring of Dr. Johnson, in which two of the three finalist dropped out and the third, Mashpee Superintendent Ann M. Bradshaw, was not hired because the board did not want her to earn the job by default.
“Is the town going to have to go through that again?” she asked rhetorically.
Oak Ridge School Principal Thomas C. Daniels categorized the school committee’s decision as “terrible.”
A parent of a child who struggled as a reader before entering Sandwich schools, Mr. Daniels said the Reading Recovery program that Dr. Johnson pushed for allowed his daughter to make major strides in the classroom.
“It changed our lives,” Mr. Daniels said. “There’s at least 100 students like my daughter in the district. The programs that Dr. Johnson has put in place changed the lives of their families forever.”
Mr. Daniels said that what he found most frustrating about the school committee’s vote was that while they were critical of Dr. Johnson, they did not specifically state how they wanted her to improve.
“They should sit down with her and frankly say what they want,” he said. “That seems fairer.”
Mr. Simmons said that Dr. Johnson, despite the success of the educational programs she has brought to the district, was tripped up by what he considered minor missteps.
He pointed to the $12,000 Dr. Johnson spent on a professional development seminar to start the school year, as a flap that was used as political ammunition by her critics.
“We had somebody who had the drive and the ability, and we waste our time yakking about tablecloths and linens,” he said.
Mr. Simmons said he was concerned that many of the teachers who had been motivated by the new programs brought to the district by Dr. Johnson would lose steam because of the school committee’s actions.
Though she could only speak for herself, Special Education Parents Advisory Council member Linda M. Saffle said she did not think that was likely to be the case.
As unsettling as changes in administration may be, she said it is one of the few things that remains constant in the world of public education.
Ms. Saffle holds her feelings close to the chest with regard to Dr. Johnson. “There are some things she’s done that have been great for the district, and some things I disagree with her on,” she said.
Ms. Saffle said that regardless of how she, or other parents and teachers feel about Dr. Johnson, they will soon have to get used to life without the superintendent.
“Most of us don’t have control of who gets hired in the district. She is still going to be here for the next year. We have a good relationship, and I have to keep working with her like I have in the past,” she said. “Sometimes you have to say ‘you can’t keep thinking of the past, you have to keep going forward.’ After last night’s meeting, you never know what the school committee is going to do.”