'Board unity' critical moving forward in search for next Sumter School District superintendent

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 12/7/18

"You're in a fishbowl for the next few months to establish and earn the trust in the community in your role in the governance of this school system."

Those were the words expressed by Kevin Castner, lead consultant with B.W.P. and Associates - …

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'Board unity' critical moving forward in search for next Sumter School District superintendent

Posted

"You're in a fishbowl for the next few months to establish and earn the trust in the community in your role in the governance of this school system."

Those were the words expressed by Kevin Castner, lead consultant with B.W.P. and Associates - the outside consulting firm assisting Sumter School District in its superintendent search - to the district's Board of Trustees on Monday night at a special called meeting.

After Castner and his team of three other associates detailed to the board its findings from last week's community engagement meetings and preliminary results from an online survey, he stressed "board unity" as being a critical final point moving forward in the search process.

The nine-member board has five new members after the November general election, and Castner said after interviewing each trustee last week that he and his team know that many of them are new, have different ideas and thoughts and might not agree on a lot of things about the district.

"But one thing you are going to have to agree on, in our opinion, is selecting a new superintendent," Castner said. "You are going to need to consider getting as close to a unanimous vote as possible, because if you can't have that type of agreement the person might not accept the job. It doesn't send a good signal."

Castner, Percy Mack, Frank Morgan and Mary Ann Blaskowitz have a combined 160-plus years of experience in public education and 40-plus years in a superintendent post, and the foursome has participated in about 45 superintendent searches for school boards, mostly in the Southeast. The entire organization, based in Chicago, has completed more than 800 superintendent searches across the U.S., Castner said.

In its interviews, focus groups with various local leaders, community forums and the online survey - which had 1,015 responses in its first five days - B.W.P. asked similar questions about the district's strengths and challenges and characteristics desired in a new superintendent.

Strengths identified included the district's dedicated teachers and staff and strong educational programs and options, among others.

The community said the district's leading challenge was moving progressively beyond the two former districts in the county and establishing a vision for a truly consolidated district. The Sumter County Legislative Delegation consolidated the two districts into one in 2011.

Funding issues were also noted as a challenge, as well as board trust and meeting the needs of a diverse district and county.

From the engagement sessions and survey, community members said the next superintendent needs to be a "servant leader," "visionary" and a "politically savvy manager who can build relationships and restore trust and accountability in the district."

Castner and his team spoke highly of the board members and said they all bring "collective talents and expertise" to the table. He said from his personal experience participating in superintendent searches that they have always been "unifying" experiences for boards and communities. Castner has participated in about 25 of them, he said.

"Everybody wants to get to that next level," Castner said. "Everybody wants to say, 'Let's get this right.'"

He told the board its selection will be the most important decision it makes because it will impact the entire community for years to come.

He urged the board to "create unity" among themselves by coming together and illustrating "statesmanship" and the ability to work together in its governance of the district. Last week, Castner said that could be an example of unity to bring Sumter's diverse community together as a whole.

He stressed board members must develop a "pattern of broader agreement toward the issues brought before them" and work together for the common good to establish trust in the community.

"You need to realize people are going to observe this," Castner said. "If you start a pattern of 5-4 votes, that doesn't send the right message. That doesn't mean that can't happen on occasion, and it doesn't mean each person votes the same way each time. I believe that there has to be debate and that better decisions are going to come because of that debate."

Morgan, who recently retired as the district superintendent in neighboring Kershaw County, said from the community engagement, many local leaders acknowledged they think Interim Superintendent Debbie Hamm has done a good job. Hamm is in her second and final year with the district.

Morgan added the community is looking forward to the search process.

"There is excitement in the community to find a leader who people can get behind for the long term," he said. "I heard that from staff. I heard that from the economic community. I heard that from the military community, and I heard that from students.

"I think that underscores what Mr. Castner said that 'this is the most important decision this board will make and will have tremendous impact for years to come.'"

The board next meets on Monday to potentially approve, with possible modifications, a draft leadership profile that the consulting team presented to them from its community engagement findings.

Castner said the board's profile approval soon would allow B.W.P. to stick to its timeline for the board to interview candidates in February and make a decision on a new district leader at the beginning of March.