Public fine tunes focus of search

by Rachel Minske
Contributing Writer
The Elk River Area School Board has received results from surveys and focus groups with hopes the responses will help steer the hiring process of a new superintendent.
The board requested School Exec Connect, a national search and consulting firm, to gather information from community members regarding the district’s strengths and challenges and traits desired of the new superintendent.
Bruce Watkins, a former St. Cloud Public Schools superintendent and district administrator with Duluth Public Schools, has served as interim superintendent for District 728 since early August. Watkins replaced Mark Bezek, who was discovered by School Exec Connect and left the post after 10 years in July to take a job in Somerset, Wisconsin.
The results of the survey are not scientific, but merely opinions, said Ken Dragseth, president of School Exec Connect, during a School Board meeting Nov. 14 when he presented the survey results to the board.
“What you’re getting is the people who are there, online,” he said of the survey results. “It may reflect the majority of the district, but it may not, too.”
Additionally, to gather information, nine focus groups were held with district administrators, high school students, community representatives, parent leader representatives, staff and the interim superintendent, among other groups.

A rundown of survey results
Of the 485 respondents who completed the online survey, 140 identified themselves as teachers or licensed staff, 296 were parents of current or past students, 48 were support staff, 40 were community or business members, 17 identified as administrators and 13 were students. Eleven of the respondents identified as “other.”
“When we asked ‘What are the greatest educational strengths?’ the top two were dedicated and competent staff and teacher quality,” Dragseth said. Strong community pride in the schools and a high level of student achievement were other identified strengths.
Educational challenges of the district as identified in the survey included class size, effective board governance, state financial support and sound fiscal management.
Survey respondents also answered questions about the district’s goals over the next three years. Focusing on 21st century curriculum was the top response, with 165 respondents, or about 34.5 percent, choosing it.
“What you’re seeing is that people want to learn how to be successful,” Dragseth said. “That was really refreshing. You don’t see that in every district.”
Other goals included maintaining programs for all student achievement levels, managing fiscal levels prudently, strengthening the academic program and curriculum and assuring students’ well-being.
“We’ve heard this from students a lot, too,” Dragseth said about respondents noting that the well-being of students is a goal. “People are very concerned at the middle and high school level about ensuring the safety of students and buildings.”

Skills for the next superintendent
As for traits that would comprise the ideal superintendent candidate, survey respondents believed someone who builds a great team and brings out the best in others is a worthy characteristic. Another skill believed to be important was hiring someone who has a deep understanding of curriculum, instruction and how students learn.
Understanding school finance and the business side of the district, someone who is a consensus builder and able to work with all constituents and has warm people skills were other identified skills and characteristics.
“What are the next steps?” asked School Board Director Jamie Plantenberg-Selbitschka following Dragseth’s presentation to the board.
The report is expected to be posted on the district’s website, isd728.org, so that community members and those interested in applying for the position can gain a clear understanding of the superintendent role. Further, the consultants will use the report as the foundation for screening and interviewing candidates.
Interviews with applicants will be completed in February and the new superintendent will assume duties in July.