Turnout low at superintendent forums

Wednesday, November 5, 2008 | 10:23 p.m. CST; updated 10:20 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 11, 2009

COLUMBIA — Columbia Public School District administrators and school board members outnumbered community members at superintendent search forums held Wednesday night.

At Lange Middle School, four people were there: Lynn Barnett, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction; school board member Steve Calloway; Missouri School Boards' Association consultant Paul James; and Principal Shelli Adams. No community members attended.

The group at Smithton Middle School was similarly small: Missouri School Boards' Association consultant Bob Watkins; Mary Laffey, assistant superintendent for human resources; Sally Beth Lyon, chief academic officer; board President Michelle Gadbois; and board members Jan Mees and Ines Segert. Only two community members were there, but both declined to be quoted by the media.

A third forum will be held Thursday from 7 to 8 p.m. at Gentry Middle School, 4200 Bethel St.

Board member Steve Calloway said he was disappointed by the lack of turnout.

"It's something we always struggle with," he said. "How do we get the word out? How do we engage people in the process?"

Across town at Smithton, Gadbois said, "At the end of the process, we don't want people to feel excluded."

Those at Smithton did talk about criteria for superintendent candidates. Instructional leadership was discussed the most. Good instructional leadership, people said, means being present in the school buildings, occasionally walking into the classrooms and valuing teachers as professionals. Watkins explained there is no specific measurement for that, but talking to candidates' former colleagues could help determine their leadership style. The group identified the biggest challenges facing a new superintendent as finances, district growth, accountability and curriculum development.

Barnett said about 50 people have taken the online superintendent survey, which is posted on the district's Web site. She said she expects between 100 and 200 responses by Nov. 14. Watkins, who is helping the board with the superintendent search, said he wouldn't be surprised if most community input came from the online surveys.

Calloway said he doesn't think the low attendance means people in Columbia don't want to be part of the search process. Community meetings might not be convenient for some, he said. Others might not know about the meetings at all, such as people who don't subscribe to newspapers or live on the north side of Columbia, where the schools' Channel 16 isn't broadcast.

He said the problem, then, is that the district is accused of not getting the word out about community meetings.

Barnett said she contacted media outlets, notified teachers and staff, sent fliers home with students and e-mailed roughly 3,000 subscribers about the forums.

The Missouri School Boards' Association's search firm organized the forums to help generate a profile of the candidates whom the firm will look for in the coming months. Watkins said he expects as many as 20 applicants by early January. The deadline to apply is Jan. 16. On Jan. 30, the school board will review applications, including those whom the firm recommends as the top candidates.

Jim Ritter has been the district's interim superintendent since August, when Phyllis Chase resigned. The school board selected her in 2003 as Ritter's successor. He will serve until the end of the school year, and the hired superintendent will begin July 1.

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