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Editorial: A Northampton superintendent’s lost legacy

Northampton Superintendent Brian Salzer

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Northampton Superintendent Brian Salzer Purchase photo reprints »

Less than two years after a drawn-out search for a Northampton school leader, the city must return to “Go.” That’s a huge disappointment to people eager to continue the progress they believe Superintendent Brian Salzer has helped guide.

Salzer is leaving his three-year contract a year early in July to take over leadership of the JFK International High School in Berlin. In making his announcement earlier this month, Salzer acknowledged that the timing isn’t good for Northampton, but said the job offer was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

Mayor David J. Narkewicz has been diplomatic in his comments about Salzer’s departure, but has reason to feel discouraged.

Just as the mayor and other members of the School Committee were preparing to review Salzer’s job performance, they will instead be looking for someone else to take his job — and then wait for that person to become familiar with the school system’s people and issues. At last week’s School Committee meeting, members accepted Salzer’s resignation, but put off developing a plan to replace him for another day. The board has not yet scheduled a meeting to discuss the search process, and we don’t know if officials will opt to name an interim schools chief while a search is launched for a “permanent” superintendent.

When it comes to job longevity, superintendents are known to hopscotch around to advance their careers, so the idea of a “permanent” superintendent is a bit of a misnomer.

Meanwhile, Salzer, 45, has promised to remain in the job through this season of budget-setting. That’s something, for it looks like it will shape up to be a tough one. The city may be forced to cut up to 30 full-time teaching jobs to balance the 2013-14 budget.

School Committee member Michael Flynn said Salzer’s departure could interrupt progress under way in Northampton schools, and spoke of lost momentum in the transition.

Salzer has received praise for helping improve morale among school employees and making solid hires. Though he stood at the top of the school hierarchy, he pressed for improvements at the ground floor: in classrooms. Union representatives also credit Salzer with helping thaw relations with the Northampton Association of School Employees, noting his collaborative spirit.

That sense of “we’re in this together,” mixed with a creative streak, won Salzer fans throughout the school system.

But there have been missteps. Last year, we believe he received poor guidance from the School Committee in managing the budget. While Salzer was first inclined to be a budget realist, committee members asked him to think big. Now, given the grim budget picture for next year, his instincts to be pragmatic look right.

On the issue of changing school start times at Northampton High School, Salzer dragged his feet. He made clear at the start, when change was proposed, that he didn’t believe it should be a priority. Still, the School Committee asked Salzer to plan forums and involve the community in discussing the merits of a later school bell for older students, to better align with their biological clocks. The superintendent seemed to go through the motions on this — and now yet another study committee is at work. We call this death by committee.

Salzer’s relations with administrators at NHS were strained recently regarding the written pledge students were asked to write in December as police investigated an anonymous threat made shortly after the Newtown shootings. While some in the community applauded Salzer’s public statements that use of the pledge was a mistake, many felt he failed to protect high school administrators, essentially throwing them under the bus.

The choice to leave a contract early is a personal one and it belongs solely to the person hired to do the job. Salzer says posts like the one at the Berlin school rarely come open. To our thinking, Salzer will leave Northampton this summer at just about the time he would be perfectly positioned to solidify his leadership and legacy. In other words, just as he was getting the hang of things.

Instead, he will likely go down in city school history as an interim leader who showed great promise.

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