When the Schenectady school board reconstitutes itself next month with two new board members, it will still have to resolve the lingering priority to find a permanent superintendent.
The district has been without a permanent superintendent since March 2020, led through the pandemic by interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak, who is now slated to leave the district for a new job at the end of August.
That search appears to have been effectively put on hold since before the May school election that saw voters soundly oust the single incumbent seeking another term on the board. New board members Jamaica Miles and Erica Brockmyer start their terms July 1 and are scheduled to be formally sworn in at the July 7 board meeting.
The new board members will bring their own views to the table as they join five current board members who have been part of the search process for over a year.
“I think the biggest thing with the superintendent search is it’s a high priority, it’s something we really need to focus on, we need to have our priority be finding that permanent person,” said Brockmyer, who earned the most votes in the school board election and joins the board in the coming days. “To have an open conversation as a board, as a team to come up with the best possible solution to meet the needs is going to be key; it’s a team not a one-man ship; we need to work together.”
Miles, a longtime community activist who over the years has both pressed the board on various issues and stood beside district leaders to demand improved state funding, also said she is looking forward to starting discussions with her soon-to-be colleagues as well as gathering more input from community members about how to conduct the search.
“I’m looking forward to a conversation with my colleagues on the board to see what they think are the pieces of information we can get from the community we serve to best move forward,” Miles said.
But many unanswered questions about the course the search will take remain: How will the board involve the community? Will the board choose to work with Capital Region BOCES again or pay for the help of an outside search consultant? On what kind of timeline does the board hope to find a new leader and when might they start? Will candidates, or even just finalists, be expected to present themselves to the community prior to the board making a final decision?
The challenge may be further complicated by an increasingly competitive superintendent search market as many longtime leaders announce they are retiring after an exhausting year-and-a-half of educating children in the midst of a global pandemic. Experts expect more retirements over the next year as well.
Board vice president Cathy Lewis on Friday said the board is “moving forward” on the search and that “everything is under consideration as of now,” but didn’t provide specifics about how the board planned to move forward.
“The seven of us haven’t had a discussion,” she said of the incoming board members.
‘Need the leadership’
Some Schenectady community leaders, though, have grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of permanent leadership in the district, highlighting the critical role in both the development of the city’s children and the city itself.
Neil Golub, chairman of the company that owns the Price Chopper/Market 32 grocery chain and a longtime Schenectday booster, in a recent interview said improving the city’s school system is the primary hurdle to broader improvements in the city. He said he often hears from businesses and individuals considering a move to Schenectady that they have concerns about the quality of the schools.
“One of the things we have heard over and over again is, ‘The schools, the schools,’ ” said Golub, who has been working on a broad study of how to improve the city. “Schenectady [schools] just has a very poor rating.”
In a recent letter to the editor, Golub wrote, “if one message is clear Schenectady, residents have little respect for the school board’s lack of decisiveness in identifying a new leader.”
He said the superintendent position is key to the city’s success and urged the board to hire a professional executive search firm to help conduct a nationwide search.
“You need the leadership, there’s no question, We have had some bad characters run that school system or be in that school system,” Golub said in the interview. “We want to find the best available candidate and if that candidate is someone in the U.S., let’s go find them. The best available candidate should be at the top of the list.”
Golub said attracting a high-quality leader to run the district is so important that last year he offered to make a private donation for a signing bonus the school board could use as a final enticement to attract a candidate the board wanted to hire; he said he would bring other potential donors to the table too.
The board at the time discussed the offer — with board president John Foley referring to an anonymous offer — but agreed it would not be appropriate to solicit the outside donation.
For his part, Golub said he didn’t know how the board took his offer but that it remained on the table. He also defended the idea of using private donations to attract a new superintendent, noting that he did not want to be involved in the search or board’s decision in any way.
“If we can find the right candidate, I can find some people to help with a signing bonus,” Golub said of his offer.
He also highlighted a story about how General Electric found its way to Schenectady, a momentous decision in the city’s history. Golub said that when Thomas Edison was searching to build in the area, two factories built for rail engine production were available at a cost of $45,000; Edison only wanted to pay $38,000; so a group of local resident came together to kick in the difference and GE landed in town. Private donors can help bridge the gap to ensure a change that ultimately brings lasting improvement to the community, he said.
“If private donors hadn’t stepped up, GE would have never located here,” he said.
Karen Lewis, a Schenectady teacher and chair of the local NAACP education committee, also said the school board should move quickly to search for and hire a new permanent leader, suggesting she thinks the board could get the job done as early as September. Like Golub, Lewis said she thinks the board should hire a private search firm to conduct a national search for a new superintendent.
“We have an opportunity that I hope we as a community do not let go to waste, because we have an opportunity to make things better for our students,” Lewis said. “Or we could continue on the path we are on now and make things worse.”
Lewis said the board should go out of its way to keep the public apprised of the progress of the search — even if the review of candidates is kept confidential by the board. She said not everyone in the community keeps up with board meetings or the district website and that it’s important the board finds ways to keep the community informed about the progress of the search to help rebuild community trust. Rebuilding that trust is critical as students return to schools and after a year marred by virtual instruction that many in the community felt was partly the result of poor decisions the board made in slashing the budget ahead of potential state funding reductions.
“The individuals can be confidential but the actual process doesn’t have to be confidential, and I think that would enable trust,” she said. “With diverse communities you have to be diversified in your communication and you have to make sure you are making an effort… That sort of dialogue I think garners trust and a feeling of participating and that your voice is trusted.”
While Lewis said she would prefer a search process that included community forums with the finalists, giving the public a chance to hear directly from the board’s final candidates and the board a chance to watch the finalists engage the community, she also said she would be okay with a closed process that was better communicated. The community did just elect a new board, she noted.
“The community has elected the board to do that work,” Lewis said.
Board members last publicly discussed how to move forward with the search for a permanent superintendent in April, but at the time failed to reach a consensus about what kind of search process to use going forward — still divided over how to include community members and staff in the process.
Since that meeting, the board has also had to search for a new interim leader, someone to replace Bochniak, who took a job at the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES starting Sept. 1. The board has interviewed multiple people interested in the position, meeting in multiple closed sessions over the past month, but Miles earlier this month suggested the board wait until she and Brockmyer joined before making an appointment.
Retirements on rise
Meanwhile, Schenectady won’t be the only district looking for a new leader. School superintendents across the country have announced retirements in the face of the draining past year of education in the pandemic.
Jacinda Conboy, general counsel at the New York State Council of School Superintendents, in a Thursday interview said the association has seen an uptick in superintendent retirements across the state in recent months and expected more to come next school year after leaders feel like they have transitioned students and staff back to school buildings on a permanent basis. The superintendent’s group was warning of a shortage of superintendent candidates before the pandemic started.
“My general sense is that we had a shortage of candidates before this, and I think just like you have seen across the board in education, there has been significant retirements at the end of this year,” Conboy said. “I think we are going to see another wave of retirements next year.”
Conboy, who has organized initiatives through the superintendents council to encourage more women to seek superintendent positions, said candidate pools are even more difficult for districts prioritizing diversity in its top position.
“That certainly is another challenge to find and recruit leaders of color,” she said.
Conboy said that generally upstate districts rely on their local BOCES to conduct superintendent searches — as Schenectady has done so far — but that many districts in the state have also utilized private firms, which come at an added cost. “They have just one job to do, just one sole purpose, this is all they do,” she said of firms that specialize in educational leadership searches.
Conboy noted that prior to the pandemic districts were finding it hard to garner a full pool of candidates, highlighting the challenge of the job. Moving up from another administrative role to superintendent comes with slightly increased pay but a major boost in responsibility and potential stress, she noted.
“There are all kinds of political pressure, significantly less job security,” she said, adding that surveys find job satisfaction among current superintendents. “You are the public face of the district, for good or bad.”