Months before the Shawnee Mission School Board named Michael Fulton as the district’s next superintendent on Monday night, it received a list of priorities collected from school staff, parents and teachers regarding they most needed to see in a new leader.
The results were strikingly consistent.
Patrons wanted a leader who could heal the fractured relationship between district employees and an administration that many felt had become autocratic and uncompromising during the previous superintendent’s tenure.
They wanted an educator accustomed to being a leader for a diverse school community, one who could empower and equip teachers and staff to support special education, minority or financially struggling students.
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And they wanted a person who would keep the community in-the-loop regarding administrative decisions, and seek feedback from teachers, parents and students along the way.
On Monday — in a move that seemed abrupt to some who had expected a search process to last into March — the board named Fulton as its top choice for the open superintendent seat vacated by former superintendent Jim Hinson when he retired in June.
Fulton, the current superintendent of the Pattonville School District in St. Louis County, was named Missouri Superintendent of the Year in 2016.
“We repeatedly got that list and read it out-loud,” said School Board President Brad Stratton on Monday, as he explained how the seven-member board ultimately decided on Fulton in an executive session that lasted into the evening Saturday.
Fulton, who has worked in the Pattonville district for 23 years, had recently announced he did not wish to extend his contract for superintendent, a position he has held since 2007.
A three-year contract approved unanimously by the School Board on Monday lists Fulton’s base pay as $250,000.
According to the Missouri Department of Education, Fulton earned an annual salary of $267,232 in 2017 as the Pattonville superintendent.
The search for a new superintendent began in August, when the School Board hired consulting firm Ray and Associates to conduct a search and collect public feedback on a new leader through community forums and surveys throughout the fall.
More than 60 people applied for the job, officials said, before the board announced three final candidates last week: Fulton, Westside Community Schools Superintendent (Omaha, Neb.) Blane McCann and Rochester, Minn., Public Schools Superintendent Michael Munoz.
The board had interviewed Fulton and the other candidates before Saturday, when the board held an additional 90 minute interview with each of the candidates. The three candidates also conducted 30 minute question-and-answer sessions with the public.
While the board appeared to forgo plans to visit the communities of finalists in-person, Stratton said board members called teachers, parents, union representatives and school staff in the Pattonville district to get a perspective they couldn’t get in the interview.
“In the end when we communicated with him we found him to be very genuine and very sincere,” Stratton said. “And we talked with groups in his school district to confirm that.”
A collaborative leader who will listen to constituents and build consensus around issues is something board members said they prioritized in the search process.
Hinson, a longtime superintendent in Independence who was hired in 2013, was credited at the time of his retirement with infusing innovation into the classroom, updating infrastructure and expanding the district’s early-education program.
But his top-down leadership style harmed the administration’s relationship with employees, teachers have told The Star. His decision to ban staff from wearing safety pins to show solidarity in the wake of the November election, as well as ACLU criticism of how the district handled a deportation incident affecting a student, prompted concerns that the district needed to improve its response to cultural and diversity issues.
According to St. Louis media, Fulton supported Pattonville High School students who held a sit-in this past September to bring attention to issues of racism, and later created time during the school day for students to express themselves.
“Now is the time to seek understanding and work together to find solutions that create a better world for all our children,” Fulton said then in a letter to parents. “Adults must be the ones to model this respectful and thoughtful dialogue for our children.”
At the 2016 Missouri Superintendent of the Year awards, Fulton was recognized for putting a “premium on community engagement and communication efforts,” as well as his work on state assessment reform.
Fulton and other education leaders have advocated for using tests to monitor student growth and progress, not just to measure proficiency at the end of the year.
New board member Heather Ousley told The Star that she was particularly impressed with the positive relationship Fulton appeared to have with his school community.
“One of the main (goals) is restoring a relationship with our educators that says, ‘You are valued. You are heard. We want to make sure you are getting what you need in the classroom to the best of our ability,’” Ousley said. “I believe Dr. Fulton is the best candidate to do so.”
Prior to the announcement, some school patrons had expressed concerns about the lack of female finalists, as well as the smaller size of the candidates’ districts.
Enrollment reached 5,660 in the Pattonville School District last year. (By comparison, the Shawnee Mission School District is the third largest school district in the state of Kansas, and serves 27,000 students.)
But Ousley said it was the district’s ability to boost student achievement while supporting a diverse group of students that captured her attention.
According to 2017 state data, Pattonville is one of the more diverse school districts in Missouri. Forty-six percent of students are white, 32.3 percent are black and 11.8 percent are Hispanic. That’s a change from 20 years ago, when 87 percent of the school district identified as white.
“He has navigated that and chartered a course in his district where his students who may not have equal access at home are performing just as well as the students with lots of resources,” Ousley said. “That is something we are looking for in our district.”
Fulton is expected to officially begin as superintendent on July 1, though his contract requires him to spend at least 10 days in the district before his start day.
The contract runs through 2021.