Superintendent finalists face new priorities, public evaluation

Wednesday, January 28, 2009 | 6:48 p.m. CST; updated 10:17 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 11, 2009

*CORRECTION: Brent Ghan is a spokesperson for the Missouri School Boards' Association. His name was spelled incorrectly in a story on page 4A Thursday.

For the second time in five years, the Columbia Public  School Board seeks to replace Jim Ritter as the superintendent of Columbia Public Schools. This week, the school board will be conducting screening interviews and narrowing down a list of five candidates to a list of two or three finalists. 

Although a relatively short time has passed since the district's last search for a superintendent in 2003, new priorities have emerged.

"There has been a fairly significant change in the last few years," said Ritter, who has been the interim superintendent since August 2008. Ritter retired as superintendent in 2003.

While past superintendents have been chosen based on their backgrounds with curriculum and instruction, the current priority, given the current financial situation of the district, will be addressing education needs on a limited budget.

"The circumstances surrounding this year's process are absolutely different," Assistant Superintendent Lynn Barnett said. "The economy alone requires different skill sets in terms of communication and financial savvy."

The two or three finalists selected by the board will be presented to the public to answer their questions. Barnett said that the school board took its cue for a more public selection process from the city's search for a new police chief.

"It underscores the importance of the public knowing what the schools are doing," Barnett said. "This is not something we did five years ago, but when people seemed so pleased with how the city has gone about selecting a new police chief, we thought it was what we should do as well."

Although prior superintendents have risen through the ranks of the school district, Ritter said that a candidate with a history of community involvement could be a consideration in a city as interested in its public schools as Columbia.

"The importance of superintendents developing relationships with their communities has risen in recent years," Brent Ghan*, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards Association, said.

The school board association has provided the school district with a consultant to help the district identify candidates that meet its needs. Ghan said that the candidates for the superintendent position should expect to engage with the communities they serve.

"They are expected to get out in their communities and establish relationships with parents and businesses," he said.

The public meetings with the community will inform the board's discussion of each candidate but are not intended to have an overwhelming impact on its decision.

"Some people may like a candidate the school board does not select, but they have to realize that the meetings are a small piece of a whole big spectrum and just another opportunity for the board to evaluate these candidates," Barnett said.

Columbia residents will have the opportunity to meet and question the final school board candidates at public meetings from 5 to 5:45 p.m. on Feb. 3 and Feb. 5 at West Junior High, 401 Clinkscales Road..  If there are three finalists, another meeting will occur Feb. 10.

The names of the final candidates will be announced by Sunday.

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