Northampton school board expected to decide among three finalists Wednesday for new city schools chief
NORTHAMPTON — The community will have a chance Wednesday, in a whirlwind of meetings and interviews, to hear from three candidates for the post of school superintendent, topped off with a planned decision by the school board.
The three finalists, chosen from a pool of 16 applicants for the superintendent’s job, are: Timothy Lee, principal of Morris elementary school in Lenox; John W. Johnson, communications director for Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction; and Laurie Bell Farkas, Northampton’s director of student services since 2012.
The finalists are scheduled to visit all city schools Wednesday to meet with teachers, staff and school councils. Parents and other city residents will have a chance to meet them from 3:30 to 5 p.m. at JFK Middle School’s community room.
The School Committee will conduct public interviews in that room starting at 6:30 p.m. and will likely make a choice for new superintendent that night, according to board member Stephanie Pick, who is heading the search process. Lee will be interviewed at 6:30, followed by Johnson at 7:30 and Farkas at 8:30. Those sessions are also open to the public.
This is the second time in two years the board has faced a decision about who will lead the city’s public schools. Brian Salzer, hired as superintendent in 2011, left in July. A search panel has been working for the past month with the New England School Development Council to identify finalists for his replacement.
The three finalists have followed different career paths, and in interviews, each outlined priorities and identified skills they say qualify them to lead the Northampton schools.
Lee, 49, of Great Barrington, has 18 years experience as principal of schools in three states. He called leading a district “a natural next step for me” and said he is drawn to the diversity of Northampton’s schools and the chance to be part of “a district where I can make a difference and where there is work to be done.”
Johnson, 47, of Madison, Wis., is communications director for that state’s superintendent of public instruction and formerly a special education teacher and assistant high school principal. Johnson, whose daughter attends Smith College, said working in a state education department has given him “a very good feel for how districts work and more importantly, what kind of needs districts have for leaders.”
Farkas, 59, of Haydenville, who was director of pupil services for the Hampshire Regional Schools for six years before being hired for a similar post in Northampton last year, said leading a district has been a longtime goal. “At this point, I’m ready,” she said. “I know the area. I know the district — I have a sense of what the strengths are and what needs to be addressed. I can hit the ground running.”
What follows are sketches of the three candidates based on their application materials and interviews with the Gazette last week.
Lee, who has worked as a principal in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Wisconsin, said Northampton faces an important task in raising student achievement. He cited the relatively low scores recorded by Northampton elementary students in the latest round of MCAS math tests as a signal that more intervention is needed. “That’s what I’ve been doing at my school for the last five years,” Lee said.
He described himself as a “convert” to using test scores and other data to strengthen classroom learning.
“At first, I didn’t see the need for us to learn how to interpret through data the different things we were seeing in kids,” Lee said. “But over time, I saw that having information about how kids are performing could really help to inform instruction.”
Lenox School Committee Chairman Don Fitzgerald said Lee helped improve student performance in both math and reading at Morris by hiring support staff and expanding the curriculum.
“Tim doesn’t sugarcoat things — he’s very up-front. And he’s done a great job of analyzing the situation,” Fitzgerald said.
Marybeth Mitts, a former three-term school board member, said Lee won support for tough decisions, citing his proposal to make Spanish the sole world language at Morris in order to preserve funds for language instruction in all five grades, as well as full-day kindergarten.
Although that meant cutting French, “net gains in teaching/learning were realized,” Mitts wrote in a letter to the search panel. “Tim leads quietly, but make no mistake, he is a firm leader.”
Lee said his interest in Spanish, which he studied at the University of Iowa where he earned a bachelor’s degree, was the catalyst for his career in education.
Although his major was psychology, “I started studying Spanish and I loved it,” said Lee, who is fluent in the language. “I started teaching and I found I had some ideas about ways to improve schools.”
After earning a master’s degree in teaching at Simmons College in Boston, he taught Spanish at a high school in Brockton and an elementary school in Cambridge. Lee also has a master’s degree in educational leadership from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.
His experience includes stints as interim principal of a public middle school and head of a private school in Wisconsin, and principal of an elementary school in Norfolk, Conn. Lee, a married father of two teenage daughters, has been principal of Morris School in Lenox since 2008.
Asked what it takes to be an effective superintendent, Lee cited good communications skills and knowledge of the field. Just as important, he said, “you need the ability to inspire people and get them jazzed up about what’s next.”
Johnson, an Albany, N.Y., native who has lived in Madison since 1991, said superintendents need “a vision of how students learn and how to engage communities in supporting public schools.”
He said his experience as communications director for the state of Wisconsin since 2003 is also relevant to a key part of any superintendent’s job: marketing.
“Education today needs to be marketed because there are so many choices,” he said. “It’s critical for schools to get out information about what is going on” in their classrooms.
Johnson studied history at Georgetown University with plans to become a diplomat. But a community service assignment in Washington tutoring elementary school children — many of whom were immigrants from Central America — drew him to the education field.
“By the end of a couple of years of college, I was interested in being a teacher,” said Johnson, who went on to earn master’s degrees in special education and educational administration, and a Ph.D. in educational leadership from the University of Wisconsin Madison.
In 1998, he was selected for Madison’s Grow Our Own Principals program, which provided training, mentoring and on-the-job experience to teachers interested in becoming principals. He now teaches a course in educational leadership at Edgewood College in Madison,
He served as assistant principal at Madison’s West High School from 1999 until 2004. While there, he helped develop a credit recovery program for struggling students and a transition program for ninth-graders.
After Elizabeth Burmaster, his former principal at West, was elected as Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction in 2001, she recruited Johnson to be her spokesman.
In a letter to the search panel, Burmaster praised Johnson as a “deep thinker who knows how to apply practical solutions to the many day-to-day challenges” facing public schools.
Peter Burke, director of the educational leadership program at Edgewood College where Johnson is a lecturer, said Johnson emphasizes “an open, sharing” management style with his students.
“He understands education policy and has a willingness to listen and ask the right questions,” said Burke, in a phone interview last week.
Johnson, who is married and has three daughters, said he is seeking a professional opportunity that will “ground myself in what I went into education for.
“Northampton, like Madison, values public education and is a place where people get involved in the schools,” he said.
That sense of community also matches his style as a leader, Johnson added. “One thing I try to practice is being visible, being out and about to see, listen and engage,” he said.
Farkas, who has lived in the Pioneer Valley for nearly three decades, previously served as an elementary and middle school principal and as director of pupil services for both the Gill-Montague schools and the Hampshire Regional district.
In Northampton, she has reorganized special education staffing so that fewer services are contracted out and more are offered in local schools — efforts that saved the district $300,000 in this year’s budget, she said.
Farkas has also worked to change what she called the “culture” of the department, “so that it’s about what we can do to help students, not what we can’t do,” she said.
Leaders of the city’s Special Education Parent Advisory Council praised Farkas for being inclusive and open with parents.
“The tone has changed a lot,” said Cate Rowan, who co-chairs the council. “She’s been much more collaborative. I think parents are pretty impressed.”
Farkas said her priorities for the Northampton schools include raising student test scores in city elementary schools ranked as low-performing by the state.
“It’s not just pointing fingers at those schools but looking at how we can work together to improve outcomes,” she emphasized. “That’s a pre-K-through-12th-grade issue.”
The district also needs to provide more help to English language learners and special education students and expand support for school families, Farkas said, “because what affects families affects children.”
Farkas, who grew up in New Jersey, earned an undergraduate degree in science education from Cornell University and gained her first teaching experience as an Outward Bound instructor. She also holds a master’s degree in education administration from Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, N.H.
Arriving in the Pioneer Valley in 1986, Farkas trained as a physician’s assistant and worked in teen substance abuse treatment for several years before becoming principal of Great Falls Middle School in Turners Falls and, in 2000, head of Gill Elementary School.
Joyce Phillips, longtime chairwoman of the Gill-Montague School Committee, said Farkas’ strength is her focus on students. “The students are always first for her and she works hard for them and for parents,” Phillips said.
Former Hampshire Regional School Superintendent Barbara Ripa described Farkas as an effective administrator.
“She’s a big-picture person but also good at the details,” said Ripa, who now leads the Union 70 District in Richmond. “She’s able to put together a plan and articulate it so everyone understands their part.”
Farkas, who is divorced and has a son, 18, at Dartmouth College, said her experience as a school administrator has taught her how to “use resources wisely” — a lesson she said she will bring to a superintendent’s post.
“The students that make up the district have changed over time,” Farkas said. “We need to take stock of who our students are and how we serve kids best using the funds we have.”