Holyoke superintendent search forum draws criticism of selection process

  • Holyoke resident Natalia MuÑoz questions the value of community input when the city has no vote on the appointment of the next superintendent, Monday, in Holyoke. STEPHEN FAY

  • Consultant Stephen Sell (rear center) encourages forum participants to describe what they would like to see in the city’s next superintendent. STEPHEN FAY

  • Holyoke Receiver-Superintendent Stephen Zrike FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 2/4/2020 5:04:13 PM

HOLYOKE — Several residents at a state-sponsored community forum Monday designed to gather feedback about what traits they’d like to see in the city’s next school leader said their thoughts will be for naught if they don’t get a larger voice in the selection process.

At issue is the lack of direct participation by the city’s School Committee in the selection of the city’s next receiver-superintendent.

The city’s current state-appointed receiver-superintendent, Stephen Zrike, announced in December that he will step down at the end of the school year. He has served in the role for five years.

Zrike was appointed to his position by former state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester in 2015 — the year Holyoke Public Schools were placed in state receivership due to a low high school graduation rate, a high number of dropouts and generally poor academic performance.

Because Holyoke is in state receivership, it is up to Education Commissioner Jeff Riley — not the city’s School Committee — to appoint a new receiver-superintendent. Monday’s session was part of the community engagement process the state initiated before the next receiver-superintendent is named.

But the one-hour input session that yielded a long wish list of attributes desirable in the next schools chief “was for nothing,” said resident Natalia Muñoz, if the commissioner alone names Zrike’s successor.

Muñoz and others at the gathering hosted by Enlace de Familias on Main Street expressed misgivings about a selection process in which Holyoke residents and officials have general input but no final say. Individuals at the gathering wanted to know what weight the commissioner would assign to their concerns. Others warned that the next superintendent might have trouble settling in if he or she lacks a comprehensive sense of the community’s hopes and expectations.

“The School Committee doesn’t have a voice or a vote,” said Ward 1 School Committee Vice Chairwoman Mildred Lefebvre. She said she would like to see at least one member of the Holyoke School Committee be part of the selection process — be in the room when Commissioner Riley is interviewing the candidates. Even if that School Committee member could not vote, Lefebvre said, he or she could represent Holyoke’s values and diversity.

Reached after the meeting, Lefebvre renewed her call for representation. She said she believed the takeaway from Monday’s listening session, with its pages of notes and lists of characteristics, would be “in one ear and out the other” on the state level.

The meeting was moderated by Steven Sell, a consultant with the Great Schools Partnership, a nonprofit school-support organization whose mission, according to its website, is to work “to redesign public education and improve learning for all students.”

His role, he said, is to survey a range of stakeholders — residents, parents, students, teachers and the School Committee — to gather their thoughts about what skills, experience and qualities they would like to see in Holyoke’s next receiver-superintendent and convey those expectations to the commissioner.

Observing was Deb Lantaigne, a targeted assistance manager for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. She told the gathering of 25 residents, students, parents, educators and city officials that the report Sell distills from his forums and surveys will be communicated to Commissioner Riley before he meets with candidates. She urged those present to “be honest and authentic” in articulating their image of the right person for the job.

The list of qualities and competencies forum participants prioritized was long. They included calls for a superintendent who speaks Spanish, someone who will be engaged in the community, live locally, be open-minded and accessible, possess cultural awareness and empathy.

Others said the schools’ next leader must be someone who loves children, trusts school principals, recognizes the progress the schools have made thus far and who has demonstrated success as a receiver-superintendent elsewhere, among other attributes.

The second community forum will be held Feb. 13 at 5:30 p.m. at Holyoke High School’s North Campus. Child care will be provided.

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