They enter school districts as fixers and calmers, with the charge of staying the course or executing a 180 or even blowing up business-as-usual. Regardless of the mission, these stop-gap school administrators are supposed to be smoothers, paving the way for the person who will take their place sooner rather than later.
“We are the person you get while waiting for the real person,” said Ray Colucciello, the interim superintendent of Fonda-Fultonville schools — the sixth district where the 76-year-old has served as the top official in an acting capacity. “We are there to set the table.”
These interim superintendents have no time to ease into a job — the clock is always ticking on their short-term appointments of a year or two — but in return they are mostly free of political worries that can come with rankling constituencies (teachers, staff, parents, students, etc.) in an effort to get things done.
“I was attracted to the job because they had issues and they wanted change,” said Lonnie Palmer, the interim superintendent at Berne-Knox-Westerlo schools in Albany County who formerly served in that role in Troy. The B-K-W district, he said, needed to see an improvement in test scores, the settlement of three long-outstanding major contracts, and the smoothing of community friction over the budget.
Niskayuna Interim Superintendent John Yagielski will hold a series of community meetings, a listening tour designed to introduce himself and gauge the issues the district views as important.
The meetings include:
• Friday, May 9: Niskayuna Town Library, 11 a.m.
• Monday, May 12: Jewish Community Center, 7 p.m. (Open to the public)
• Wednesday, May 14: Niskayuna Town Hall, 7 p.m.
Yagielski will discuss the main goals he and the Board of Education have identified, and then listen to thoughts and concerns residents have about the district. In the coming weeks he will also schedule stops with parents, teachers, and staff at each district school.
The way Palmer saw it, he had to be a problem solver, not a conciliator. (That said, he added that two of the contracts have been agreed upon.)
“I don’t have to worry about the political ramifications,” he said. “I’m not a smooth-the-political-waters guy. I cleaned the back 40; now they can plant the seed.”
These administrators almost all come with a wealth of experience — many are lured out of retirement — and they provide school boards with a valuable commodity needed for filling arguably the most important positions in a given district.
“They do it to buy time,” John Yagielski said.
This past week Yagielski was named interim superintendent of Niskayuna, after the departure Susan Kay Salvaggio. The school board has not publicly disclosed why they essentially let Salvaggio go, but the district has been rocked by voters rejecting an over-the-tax-cap budget and discussions of closing an elementary school.
Yagielski, 72, is a longtime Shenendehowa superintendent who headed Schenectady schools over a two-year interim period. He says he does not conduct himself differently than if he had the job on a permanent basis ‑ “People want to be able to count on some consistency,” he said — but he acknowledges that being an interim allows some hard choices to be made more easily.
“The conditions do put you in position to make some changes that would be more difficult for someone else to make,” Yagielski said. “Right now, the finances drive so much of that. ... You have to hit the ground running.”
There are 34 interim superintendents currently serving in New York school districts, representing about 5 percent of the total positions — a normal ratio according to the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
“Obviously, interim superintendents are generally expected to be short-term leaders,” said council Deputy Director Robert Lowry. “Some districts are small and administratively lean — they don’t have an assistant superintendent to step in. Depending on timing, they may have no choice but to hire an interim.
“But sometimes it makes sense for a district to purposely employ an interim for awhile — for example, to clear up problems, make tough decisions, or both, so that a new, permanent superintendent starts with a clean slate,” Lowery continued. “I think John Yagielski did that very effectively in Schenectady. Also, sometimes a school board is divided, so it may be unwise for the board to try to settle on a permanent leader and risky for a candidate to take the job under those circumstances.”
In Mayfield, Joseph Natale has served as interim superintendent as the district prepared for a merger with the Northville school district — until that plan was nixed by voters in January.
“I had to consume all that information, understand it, be able to explain it in lay terms,” Natale said. The merger talks, he continued, “put a lot of things on hold: It’s hard to plan for your future when you don’t know what your future is going to be.
“Now we are beginning to rebuild and refocus and get away from the tentative decisions.”
Many interim superintendents are retired educational professionals. Those over 65 can continue to collect pensions and their salary — prompting shouts of double-dipping. (Those under 65 need a state waiver to collect a full salary.) But districts actually save money employing these retired men and women, because the school systems to not have to contribute to retirement or health care costs.
“It’s less expensive than hiring a permanent one,” Yagielski said. “Here is the other thing you buy: A lot of experience.”
After Yagielski got the Niskayuna post, the first person to call was the septuagenarian Colucciello — “the master of the interim,” as Yagielski calls him.
You may know of Colucciello — regardless of where you live. He’s done two stints in Schenectady schools. Same for Albany and Scotia-Glenville. Like Yagielski, he ran Schenectady schools on a short-time basis. Colucciello has been a superintendent in seven districts, six on an interim basis.
“One of the main advantages [of interim superintendents] is we have done a lot of this stuff over the years. We know the dynamics of different places,” Colucciello said. “We try to do the right thing and not worry about our next job.”
Colucciello said others in the role said the priorities can vary circumstance to circumstance save one respect: The interim superintendent’s priority is to make it easier for the next man or woman in the seat.
“What’s different about it is you are there temporarily,” said William Scott, appointed in January interim superintendent in Fort Ann in January — his third interim stop after a long career running the Northern Adirondack school district. “You are tying up loose ends as best you can, trying to get things ready for the new superintendent.”