Focus on children tops list of qualities for next schools superintendent

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What does Whitefish want out of its next schools superintendent?

This is among the questions posed last week by Darlene Schottle, a regional search associate for Ray & Associates, during a community conversation focused on the upcoming search for a new Whitefish School District superintendent.

Ray & Associates was hired last month by the school board to conduct its superintendent search.

Schottle asked an audience of school board trustees, parents and community members for their input on the positives and negatives of the district and what they want to see moving forward.

The conversation came after a full day of talking to about 50 current trustees and staff members about the same questions, Schottle said.

With staff and community input, Schottle said she’ll offer insights to Ray & Associates, who will have the job posted by Dec. 19.

“I don’t write the brochure, I just help them change it around to more accurately fit what this community wants to have,” she said.

The position will be open until Feb. 9 and will be advertised in Montana as well as nationally.

By Feb. 25, Schottle says she’ll have the top seven to 10 candidates to bring from the board, which they will rank and cull down to just the top few.

Schottle says if all goes right, the district should have a new superintendent by mid-March of 2020.

The district is looking to hire a new superintendent following current Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt’s announcement of her resignation, effective at the end of the school year.

During last week’s conversation, Schottle kicked things off by asking what the district has been doing right and should continue.

Parent involvement, talented teachers and a focus on the students were the top suggestions.

“We have fantastic teachers and I would just like to see them supported,” Shannon Hoge said.

Jerrie Boksich added that a child-centered quality is representative of Whitefish.

“We’ve always been child-centered, which is important,” Boksich said. “The child comes first, you’re always looking for the best fit in education for that child, so that advances and becomes the best person they can be.”

Additionally, Schottle added that the construction of a new Muldown Elementary School building and the district’s other quality facilities are a big bonus for someone coming in.

“It’s a very positive thing to have because somebody’s not coming in thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, am I going to have to renovate buildings, am I going to have to pass a bond for a new building?’ You’ve already done all that,” she said.

On the topic of challenges, declining test scores and the rising rates of students with mental illnesses nationwide came up.

Hoge said she wants to see the next superintendent focused on student mental health issues and what can be done to create more resilient students.

“A kid spends their entire day, morning to night, at school every day. That’s their environment, that’s their community, that’s the people they’re with. Yet we still have so many young people facing mental health issues and really tough things, and then they carry that into their adult life. What can we do? I know we’re trying things and we have great people in place, but I think a superintendent should be focused on that,” she said.

Likewise, Lynn Beck said teachers are pushed to do more in the same amount of time.

“Reading scores have been going down, and now math scores as well. It’s in a crisis situation,” she said. “I think we have a lot of programs in place to help children who were falling behind, but a lot of the staff, because of budget constraints, have been taken away, so the teachers are trying to do more with less.”

Boksich added she’d also like to see a new superintendent who is grounded in the community. Different members of the audience had their own opinions about what grounded means in the context of living within the Flathead Valley, but for Boksich, it’s Whitefish.

“We have not had a superintendent who has lived in Whitefish and has had their family in Whitefish. We need someone grounded in the community, who knows the community. You can’t be a superintendent who leaves on the weekend to go to some other town where your children are in school, and that has happened with our last two superintendents,” she said. “We need some that if they have a young family then they live here and they’re a part of the community. That’s one way you can build trust.”

Schottle is based in Bigfork and has worked for over 34 years in education as a teacher, principal, and Superintendent of Kalispell Schools. She is currently the chairperson of the Montana State Board of Education.

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