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Interviews for new superintendent to begin in January

In the search for a new superintendent to lead Powell schools, the bar is set “very, very high.”

Those are the words of Brian Farmer, executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association, who is helping Park County School District No. 1 as it replaces outgoing Superintendent Kevin Mitchell.

“Mr. Mitchell is highly regarded around the state and has been a really great superintendent, so we have our work cut out for us in finding good candidates for you,” Farmer told the Powell school board.

Applications are due by Jan. 10; nearly 50 application packets have been sent to interested candidates.

Powell school board members and Wyoming School Boards Association consultants will review applications Jan. 17, narrowing the pool down to a few finalists.

“The hope is to narrow it down to three,” said Greg Borcher, Powell school board chairman. “If we decide that out of the three there’s not one we really want, we can start over again.”

Finalists will be interviewed in Powell between Jan. 23 and Jan. 31. The two-day process for each finalist will include visiting local schools, speaking at a community forum, touring Powell and meeting with teachers, administrators and other school district employees. The process culminates with an interview by the school board, which will be held in an executive session closed to the public, since it is a personnel matter.

“The most important part of the day is the interview with the whole board of trustees,” Farmer said.

Interviews are scheduled to take place from 7:30-9 p.m. after the candidate “has a darn long day,” which starts at 8 a.m. and has few breaks in between, Farmer said. Part of that is by design, since superintendents often put in long hours.

“You want to see how they operate when they’ve had those long days,” Farmer said.

Superintendents face a lot of pressure, he added.

“Being a superintendent is a very difficult job,” Farmer said.

Nationally, the average tenure of a superintendent is about three years, while in Wyoming it’s closer to five years, he said. Mitchell started with the Powell school district in 2007.

Chairman Borcher is the only current school board member who was part of the hiring process for Mitchell.

“I hope it goes as smoothly as what I remember 10 years ago,” Borcher said.

After interviews in January, Borcher said the board hopes to make its selection in early February. Mitchell’s last day is June 30; the new superintendent may overlap with Mitchell at the end of June and officially start July 1.

Hiring a new superintendent is one of the most important functions of a school board, and the Wyoming School Board Association’s process in assisting with searches has been refined, Farmer said.

“This is definitely an art, not a science,” he said, calling it unique.

“This is really a matching process,” Farmer said. “I’ve heard it equated to marriage or dating or something like that — you’re looking for a good partner for your district.”

Applicants so far are from Wyoming, nearby states and “from all across the country,” Farmer said last week. “That is a little bit unusual. Normally, most applications come from around the region.”

The board decided this fall to advertise the salary as “not less than $150,000.”

Borcher said when he polled board members about the salary, responses ranged from $130,000 to $150,000.

“I had a talk with Brian (Farmer), and he gave me a lot of reasons why he feels we should be looking higher,” Borcher said. “I’ve done a lot of thinking on that, and I agree that we don’t want to start too low. And maybe the cream of the crop is at $150,000 and they’re not going to apply for less than that.”

Candidates expect there may be some wiggle room in a salary range, between $5,000 and $10,000, Farmer said.

“The conundrum here is if we put the minimum too low, then we could be foregoing possible candidates that are qualified,” he said. “Let’s say you want to put it at $130,000 and they think they’re worth $150,000 ... that’s a huge jump.”

In Wyoming, the average salary for a superintendent is about $138,000, Farmer said.

The highest paid superintendent in Wyoming makes about $198,000, while the lowest is at $100,000, he said.

However, it’s not quite an apples to apples comparison, as benefit packages vary.

“Around Wyoming, there are some incredibly creative ways for providing additional compensation,” Farmer said. “Within Park County, there is one district that offers a housing allowance.”

Mitchell was hired in 2007 at $126,500, Borcher said. Two years later, his salary increased to $140,000. After looking at other 3A school districts in Wyoming, the school board increased his salary to $160,000 in 2014. Along with other Powell school district employees, Mitchell was given a raise last year to bring his salary to $164,800.

“All of our candidates are going to know what the Powell superintendent position has a history of paying,” Borcher said. “That’s kind of the market price, as they know it.”

Trustee Don Hansen said he didn’t want to start a new superintendent at the same salary as Mitchell.

“It has taken Kevin 10 years to get to the $164,000 — that to me is loyalty to our company,” Hansen said. “I hope we have rewarded him for his loyalty ... giving the same as Kevin would be an insult to Kevin because he’s given us that loyalty of 10 years.”

Farmer said he thinks there is some expectation among candidates that the salary will be less than what Mitchell is making.

“Kevin is regarded as a very strong superintendent within the state and has a good tenure here,” Farmer said. “I don’t think you’re going to lose candidates by paying less — I just think it depends on how far less you’re able to go before you start losing potential candidates of the same caliber.”

Several board members said they were comfortable with advertising $150,000.

“I feel pretty good about $150,000, because I want somebody really good,” said Trustee Kimberly Condie.

Borcher agreed it was a good starting spot.

“I don’t feel like we’re going to hire a brand-new superintendent that this is going to be his first job,” he said. “We’re going to hire somebody who has several years of experience doing the job, so we should be a little bit higher in our salary.”

As part of the application process, candidates are asked whether they have been asked to resign or if they’ve been involuntarily terminated. The Wyoming School Boards Association (WSBA) will also do informal checks and criminal background checks on candidates, Farmer said.

“We use our contacts to look into folks,” he said. “If they become a finalist, we’ll do a little bit more digging.”

In recent years, the WSBA assisted with superintendent searches in Jackson, Laramie, Ten Sleep and Guernsey, among others.

Currently, Powell is the only Wyoming school district actively searching for a superintendent.

“You guys are very early in the superintendent hiring season,” Farmer told the board. “I think this is going to be very good for you.”

‘Strong and dynamic’ superintendent sought for Powell schools

Local residents hope the new superintendent for Park County School District No. 1 will be a strong leader who can solve problems.

In a survey of school district administrators, staff and community members, most respondents said they are looking for “strong and dynamic leadership skills with high standards of personal integrity, fairness and ethicality.”

Other top characteristics included:

• A problem solver willing to make difficult decisions for the best educational interests, even in difficult situations.

• A “team builder” with charisma — one who can move a school board, administrators, teachers, support staff and community toward a shared vision and common expectations.

• Ability to be visible and accessible and to deal openly with members of the board, all employees, students, businesses, the media and the community.

• Exceptional personnel management skills, with the ability to resolve conflicts and maintain positive morale.

In addition to rating a list of characteristics, survey respondents also shared general thoughts. Commenters’ names were withheld.

“I want the superintendent to see education as society’s vehicle to prepare ALL students to function in society — not just the college bound students,” wrote one respondent.

“I believe that an effective superintendent listens to the community as a whole and has the best interest of all students at heart,” wrote a community member. “As a parent of students within the Powell school district, I would like to see Common Core removed and education placed back in the state of Wyoming’s hands. Ideally, he/she would be conservative with agricultural and family values.”

Added one staffer, “Please make sure he/she is a person who respects the process, is a straight shooter, and doesn’t run the district like a good-old boys club.”

Several people said they’d prefer to find a local person or someone who understands Wyoming.

Some other repeated requests were for a superintendent who listens to, respects and helps all district employees and for someone who doesn’t put too much of an emphasis on athletics.

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