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Officials: Promoting interims "common practice"

Photo by File Photo

Superintendent of Schools Mary Kolek, left, and Board of Education Chairman Hazel Hobbs at a special meeting March 17, 2014, at New Canaan High School.

Following the promotion of two interims to senior administrative positions at New Canaan Public Schools, officials have come out in support of Superintendent of Schools Mary Kolek, who made those appointments without creating a search committee.

Kolek, who will retire at the end of the school year, appointed former West Elementary School Principal Jill Correnty to assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction this month and Gary Kass to assistant superintendent of human resources last year.

The two had been in their respective positions as interims for months before becoming permanent.

Although the board's Administrative Regulations state "that following the announcement of an opening in a senior administrative position (assistant superintendent, director of personnel and facilities, business manager and principal) the superintendent or superintendent's designee will appoint a selection committee," search committees were not created for Kass' or Correnty's jobs.

According to several officials, however, central office positions do not require the creation of a search committee.

The regulations, according to Kolek, are just guidelines "intended for how you might implement a policy in the context of certain situations."

Besides those regulations, the Board of Education and the central office operate under at least three other rule books. The Board of Education is governed by its bylaws and by state law. The New Canaan Board of Education policies are meant to guide the operation of the school system.

"The easiest way to think about it is that the policies are essentially the rules that govern how we're functioning in the district, and the administrative guidelines are like operating procedures," Kolek said. "In general, this is how the management team, the administrators and the people in the district would go about in enacting those policies. ... If there's a determination that there needs to be a committee or a group of people that is going to work on hiring, this is about how you go about doing it."

School officials agree that the regulations are meant to determine how to carry out the policy in certain circumstances. The board policies do not state that a search committee is needed for administrative positions.

The policies do state, however, that "the superintendent shall nominate for appointment by the Board of Education personnel needed in carrying on the work of the public schools." They also state that "the board retains final authority to approve, before an offer has been made, the employment of all administrative positions reporting directly to the superintendent."

Officials said both Kass' and Correnty's appointments followed that procedure. Board of Education Chairman Hazel Hobbs said the board approved Correnty's appointment in an executive session Feb. 24. Kass became assistant superintendent of human resources in July 2013, one year after he was appointed interim.

Kass said the board's policy is what actually drives decisions in the district.

"The superintendent always has the opportunity to appoint, and this is normally done for central office positions, like the appointment of Dr. Correnty," he said. "(Kolek) is not confined by policy to convene a search committee. ... She certainly has the ability to make these appointments."

The board's bylaws state that the role of a search committee is "to help with the recruitment, interviewing and selection of a candidate for recommendation to the Board," but they don't state when such committee must be created. The administrative regulations state that the committee must include at least two members of the Board of Education, the superintendent, one administrator from each level of the system -- elementary, middle and high schools -- one central office administrator, one representative of the New Canaan Education Association and two community members. Read Full Article 

For the superintendent position, the Board of Education has already created a search committee. At a March 17 meeting, the board appointed itself as the committee to find a new and/or interim superintendent of schools.

Two other search committees are in place for new principals at East and West elementary schools. East Principal Alexandra "Bunny" Potts and West acting Principal Joanne LaVista are also retiring in June. The search committees include Kass, Correnty, teachers from both schools and Parent Teacher Council members, among others.

Kolek said Correnty and Kass proved to be the best candidates for those jobs while serving as interims and that this kind of promotion is common practice.

"When there's an open position, sometimes the best thing for the district -- in the professional judgment of everyone involved, given the context -- is to use an interim," Kolek said. "Sometimes, that interim turns out to be, given all the circumstances, the best person for that position and then the board has discretion, when working with me, to determine whether we should move (that person) into a more permanent position."

Kass said interested candidates may still apply for a position when there's an interim in place. He said his department received and considered applications from other potential candidates for the position of assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, but Correnty still turned out to be the best candidate for the job.

"Having the opportunity of trying Dr. Correnty in the position and when it worked out as well as it did, it made the most sense in the best interest of the district to make that appointment," he said. "It'd be great if everyone understood that we take the appointment of administrators very seriously and we would never do anything (that wouldn't) put the best possible candidate in this level (of) positions."

Patricia McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said "it's certainly not uncommon" for school districts to promote interims.

Town Council member Tucker Murphy, who's also a member of the council's education subcommittee, said this kind of controversy may hurt the school district and the property values in New Canaan.

"If we, as a town, have an image problem out there when it comes to being a difficult district to work with or that we've got some problems, we are not going to attract the kind of people that we're going to want to attract for Mary Kolek's job and some of these principal positions," Murphy said. "Furthermore, we could lose some administrators because people just feel like it's uncomfortable to work here."

Board of Education member Penny Rashin made the same point, noting that there's a nationwide shortage of school administrators.

"The pool of top administrators is not that big," Rashin said.

Kolek said school administration is an area "where it's very difficult to find people."

"If you look statewide, there are so many interim superintendents, interim pupil service directors and interim business managers," she said. "Their searches go on for long periods of time because there are not a lot of people who are available and willing to fill those positions. ... That's why you see hiring practices and search practices that vary depending on what the context is."

Darien Public Schools has had an interim superintendent since November.

Vivian Birdsall, president of the New Canaan Education Association, said she always consults attorneys during high-level school promotions and that she hasn't found anything wrong with Kolek's recent appointments.

"We have appointed many interims in the past," Birdsall said. "As the president of the teachers' union, I don't have any problems with any of those appointments."

Birdsall also said she thinks Correnty would have gotten the job anyway.

"I think she would've been an easy pick if we had interviewed other people," Birdsall said. "She's extremely dedicated to the schools."

Thomas Mooney, the attorney for the district, did not return a call for comment.

noliveira@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6582; @olivnelson

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