WESTHAMPTON — A subcommittee of the five local districts of the Hampshire Regional School District met with Liz Lafond, a field director for the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, to prepare the public advertisement for a new superintendent.

A special subcommittee to prepare an ad? This time, committee members want to get it exactly right.
Members felt the weight of responsibility to do better. There was rueful acknowledgment that in the recent past the committees have not chosen superintendents with the required experience. The recognition of the need to move on from Superintendent Diana Bonneville, who’s contract was not renewed for the coming year, pushed members to admit their mistakes.

“We wanted someone with experience and hired someone without experience,” Westhampton School Committee member Peter Cleary said at the subcommittee meeting. “We have the habit of doing what we say we don’t want to do.”

Members of the five town district that includes Southampton, Westhampton, Goshen, Williamsburg and Chesterfield, as well as the high school, also ruefully acknowledge the district is a very challenging environment. Only an experienced superintendent will do. That’s why the subcommittee tasked with drawing up the public call for candidates thoroughly discussed the wording of the advertisement.

One problem the subcommittee encountered was the salary. The five school committees must vote to authorize the pay rate for the incoming superintendent. Discussion revealed an annual rate between $170,000 and $195,000 will be offered after a vote in favor of it. That salary would be an increase from Bonneville’s last rate of $156,500.

The higher salary was suggested by the need for a more experienced administrator. The dearth of experienced leaders, especially west of Interstate 495, means a higher salary is necessary to lure a retired superintendent back into temporary service.

“There’s not a big pool of retired superintendents,” Lafond said. “I would reach out to one or two … and that’s all there is in Western Massachusetts.”

Lafond emphasized the hiring committee should look for candidates with at least 10 years of experience leading a district. A thoroughly seasoned candidate will be better able to deal with the complicated structure of the district, which includes three municipal districts, districts within one town and two regional districts.

“I don’t think we should settle for anything less,” said Trish Colson Montgomery, chair of the New Hingham Regional School District, which serves Goshen and Chesterfield. “We went that route twice and both times it didn’t work … [and] experience is critical because this is such a complicated district.”

The subcommittee discussed the pay rate and how to frame it so that many qualified candidates respond. Educators with the required experience, Lafond said, would be earning a salary in the range the district will offer. Subcommittee members hesitated to include a salary if the suggested range hadn’t been approved by school committee votes.

The subcommittee decided against including a salary range in the advertisement. Some disagreement about the wording about experience, required or preferred, also stimulated discussion. The dissatisfaction with the recent hiring failures prompted Scott Johndrow, a member of the Westhampton School Committee, to voice frustration.

“I’m glad we’re not putting in the salary,” Johndrow said. “I’m not going to give that money to an assistant superintendent who wants to be a superintendent.”

Johndrow also commented that in the last superintendent search the hiring committee wanted a minimum of five years of administrative experience. Bonneville had one year of experience.

The subcommittee and Lafond were also given the responsibility to draw up and disseminate a survey of district stakeholders, an effort to identify not only what parents, students, teachers and staff see as important for the district, but also to solicit participants in the hiring process itself. The hiring committee will put out the call for applications this week, with interviews taking place between April 1 and April 10.

The hiring committee will be made up of teachers and school staff, but also at large members and students. The announcement of finalists is scheduled to occur by about the middle of April, with visits by the remaining candidates thereafter.

Subcommittee members thought to include the accolades district schools earned recently. Westhampton Elementary School was named one of the 50 best elementary schools. The high school won recognition for its high access to Advanced Placement courses, which are more academically demanding.

Lafond said posting the job for four weeks would be typical. The veteran of many superintendent search efforts, said she thought the subcommittee came to useful decisions.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape. You’ve made a lot of really good choices about this,” Lafond said. “We keep our eye on that prize, experience.”

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