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Superintendent candidates answer final questions

Date: 6/22/2009

By Courtney Llewellyn

Reminder Assistant Editor

WILBRAHAM Both superintendent candidates had lengthy final interviews with the School Committee last Wednesday evening, sharing their opinions on special education, budgeting, management techniques and more.

Dr. Steven Schafheimer, Assistant to the Superintendent for Strategic Initiatives for the Brighton Central School District near Rochester, N.Y., and M. Martin O'Shea, the principal at Minnechaug Regional High School, have been selected as the final candidates in the search for a replacement for Dr. Paul Gagliarducci, who will be retiring at the end of the month.

Both men were asked a series of eight questions in their final interviews. Schafheimer answered for nearly an hour and a half; O'Shea, for more than an hour.

The two agreed on several key topics, including putting on emphasis on building strong relationships both inside and outside the school department, "vertical and horizontal communication," bringing students with special needs back into the district, moving forward with and completing the new high school project and keeping budget cuts as far from the students as possible.

School Committee member Marianne Desmond asked what each candidate would do to help further curriculum development from the elementary schools through the high school while keeping state requirements and the No Child Left Behind Act and Adequate Yearly Progress in mind.

"We've adopted all sorts of curriculum throughout the years," Schafheimer replied. "The most successful [results came from] having the people closest to the instruction help make the decisions." He noted that the most successful program he's seen is the investigations math program, and that for instruction to be as beneficial as possible, teachers have to ensure students "do what they need to do, not what they want to do."

O'Shea stated that building a curriculum is an area of strength for him, based on his experience as a teacher and a curriculum designer.

"I think the link between the elementary schools and the middle schools and the middle schools and the high school are critically important," O'Shea said. "There needs to be teams of teachers working across grade levels. There is always room for improvement, but right now, I think the texts and the curriculum are aligned."

O'Shea and Schafheimer both admitted that they don't know everything, and if chosen, both would use the knowledge and experience of others in the administration to help them make decisions.

"I would try to get people to collaborate. I would get the information out. I would open a dialogue," Schafheimer said of how he'd deal with a problem confronting the district. "Almost everything is a big deal in each building. Parents want to know what's going on, and they want to know their children are safe."

"I'm a believer in being a leader rather than being a boss," O'Shea said of his management style. "I tend to listen and ask a lot of questions." He added that he would "set the stage" to make sure productive conversations happened when an issue arises.

The chair of the School Committed, Scott Chapman, asked how each candidate would develop relationships with the local community and build trust in the schools.

"I think support and trust are the foundation for everything you do as a superintendent, from building the budget to the strategic plan," O'Shea replied. He added that one couldn't run a school without support from parents, local businesses, community groups, the Board of Selectmen and those in public safety.

Schafheimer said he is very visible in the community, and that his job as superintendent would include him working as a salesperson for the district. "We need to get information out, using a Web site and e-mails," he stated. "You never know where your next level of support will come from." He added that he would wants the schools on the minds of the selectmen and state legislators.

School Committee member D. John McCarthy inquired as to how each candidate would address the demands of the schools in these challenging economic times.

Schafheimer said he'd look first at non-mandated, non-essential programs for cuts, and look at what the curriculum needs to be. He'd want to figure out where the schools would want to be in one, three and five years and set up plans for the replacement and procurement of new technology, a focus of his.

O'Shea noted that when budgets are tight, that increases the importance of involving constituencies in the decision making process. He would share the budget process and proposals with the public, and would use the strategic plan to be reminded of what is important for the district. He would also make sure funds were set aside for any unforeseen circumstances.

Both men would want to overhaul the special education programs in the district to save money by focusing on inclusion (bringing students back into the district from where they may currently be placed).

When asked by School Committee member Bill Bickley how each candidate would define success for his superintendency in three years, Schafheimer said he'd look at his short and long term goals, the relationships he'd built, see if the school district was moving forward and "hopefully opening the doors to a new high school."

O'Shea would want to have developed and implemented a strategic plan, define a direction for the district and see the new building plan to fruition, with a new program for the new school.

School Committee Vice-Chair Peter Salerno stated at the end of the interviews that the committee was proud of both candidates and that a tough decision faces them. He said a candidate would be selected at the committee's June 23 meeting.