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'Super' candidates 'building' change

New leadership aimed to repair crowded education

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

SOUTHWICK The Southwick-Tolland Regional School District (STRSD) could see some administrative and dramatic structural changes in the next few years.

The School Committee's appointment of the district's new superintendent next month and a proposed $16 million building project to alleviate overcrowding currently under consideration by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) could significantly transform education in the district.

Last week the School Committee conducted their final round of interviews with the two remaining candidates to fill retiring Superintendent Thomas Witham's position. Witham previously told Reminder Publications that if the MSBA grants their building project he wants a superintendent in place who will see the construction to fruition.

The two final candidates, Dr. John Barry, superintendent of the North Berkshire School Union in North Adams, Mass., and Assistant Superintendent of STRSD Paul Petit were given the opportunity to conduct a formal presentation for their transition process as well as participate in a question and answer session.

Barry explained that his six-month transition period would include the establishment of communication and working relationships, informal classroom observations, significant analysis of the district's finances and meetings with faculty, staff, government officials and parents in order to surmise their goals for his leadership. He added that once those tasks have been achieved he will formulate his findings into a strategic plan for the district.

"Entry plans are ubiquitous," he said. "I did not reinvent the wheel." Barry added that he would want to make as "smooth a transition as possible" and learn the details of the district's financial management in light of the proposed building project.

"The MSBA project is going to be a big deal for whomever has this job," Barry said, adding that he will do everything in his power to ensure that the project is on time and on budget.

During his presentation, Barry assured the School Committee that he would not be implementing any major changes within the first year of his administration. "It's not an appropriate time for a new administration to do that . I will fix things that are broken."

However, during his closing remarks, Barry said, "I'm not afraid to make hard decisions on behalf of kids. I wouldn't be afraid to upset the apple cart within the first few months of my tenure here."

Petit, the second candidate to go before the School Committee provided members and the audience with a detailed Power Point presentation for his transition into the role of superintendent.

He provided an outline of basic procedures such as his reintroduction to staff, students, government officials, parents and the community. Petit also provided a detailed outline of the needs of each school in the district.

Petit called for "continuous improvement" for himself and for the district as well as the implementation of "data-driven decision making."

He explained that if the MSBA does not grant their project, school administrators must have a "Plan B" to address capital improvement needs such as overcrowding, replacing roofs, heating and cooling systems, single-pane widows and plumbing.

Petit explained that the project currently under review by the MSBA includes a new Early Childhood Education Center in order to free space at Woodland Elementary School and Powder Mill Middle School.

The center would provide classroom space for the preschoolers currently housed at a facility on College Highway; the center would allow for the removal of the three modular classrooms at Woodland Elementary School, which is currently five classrooms too small; the new center would also allow the fifth grade students, currently schooled at the middle school, to move back to Woodland Elementary, Petit explained.

Carrie Sullivan, press secretary for the MSBA, explained that the MSBA received 423 Statements of Interest (SOI) from districts across the state. The MSBA will be allocating $500 million each year to needy school districts for the next five years, she added. The STRSD is one of 83 school districts moved forward to a Feasibility Study.

"They [STRSD] were moved into our capital pipeline and were one of the first projects to move into the Feasibility Study," Sullivan explained. "This project should be prioritized for fast track action based on their needs. We've validated their SOI. It stood out well enough that it warrants what we see as immediate action."

Sullivan added that a "feasibility invitation represents the worst of the schools that have the worst physical condition and lend themselves to the poorest educational environment."

She explained that the MSBA process to achieve funding is lengthy and that moving forward to a Feasibility Study is in no way a guarantee that the project will be granted money.

In an interview with Reminder Publications, Petit said he was eager and willing to see the building project through. He added that he has pledged to offer stability and an "easy transition." Petit said that if he is not granted the superintendent's position he will remain on staff as assistant superintendent.

School Committee Member Betz Magni said regardless of Petit's position as assistant superintendent he will be shown no special treatment, nor does he have an advantage in their decision-making process. She added that in light of the possible building project the committee is looking for the highest qualified candidate that is willing to see the project completed.

The School Committee will announce their decision for the new superintendent at their meeting on April 15.