Overland Park & Leawood

Blue Valley seeks input on new chief

Community members in the Blue Valley School District got a chance this week to weigh in on choosing the next school superintendent.

Consultants with the Chicago-based search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates held more than 20 focus groups and community forums with parents, teachers, students and community leaders to get input as they begin helping the district’s board find a replacement for Tom Trigg, who left the district this summer to become superintendent of the Dallas-area Highland Park School District.

On Tuesday, a half-dozen parents gathered for a community forum at Hilltop Campus in Overland Park. They told the consultants that they wanted an experienced leader who would preserve Blue Valley’s reputation as a high-performing district while looking for ways to make the district better.

Blue Valley is a large district with 3,200 employees and a total expenditure budget of $313 million. The district saw its student enrollment increase this fall to 22,023.

“It’s a growth mindset,” said Kelly Wachel, a parent from Stilwell. “I think the next superintendent really needs to focus on maintaining the current environment but also what is the next level for Blue Valley?”

Other parents called for additional attention to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, protection of arts and music programs, and balancing academic rigor with students’ well-being to prevent burnout. They said they also wanted more recognition of the district’s academic and socioeconomic diversity and that “the vast middle” of students who don’t qualify for either gifted or special education programs get overlooked.

Otis Crumpton, who said he was a newcomer to the district from Olathe, said he appreciated that the teachers at Lakewood Elementary School challenge his 7-year-old daughter, Jasmine, but still keep class fun. He said he wanted that approach to continue.

“The other thing is they have plenty of opportunities for parents to get involved,” Crumpton said. “For us working parents, it’s kind of challenging to work around a schedule, but the school district offers enough opportunities where it doesn’t cause too much hardship.”

One parent expressed worry that potential superintendent candidates may be dissuaded from taking the job because of concerns about school funding and dysfunction in the Kansas Legislature.

Consultant Jim Morse said speakers at other meetings had expressed similar thoughts.

That drew a lengthy rebuttal from another parent at the meeting, state Rep. Jerry Lunn, who said perceptions of poor education spending were false and that the state had actually increased funding for K-12 schools in recent years. He said some schools needed to reduce their administrative costs to direct more money to the classroom. He offered to schedule meetings between potential candidates and fellow state lawmakers to assuage their fears.

“There is a strong perception in the media, but here are some other facts for you to consider,” said Lunn, a Republican from Overland Park. “It’s not accurate, what’s being portrayed.”

Lunn also advocated giving the new superintendent greater flexibility to create alternative learning environments along the lines of magnet schools and building on the innovations of Blue Valley’s Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS), which immerses high school students in professional environments with employer mentors. In particular, he said schools needed to do a better job of providing information technology skills to meet the needs of area businesses.

He also said he felt the district could possibly benefit from elements of school choice, although other parents said they didn’t think the community would support that.

Judie Becker of Leawood called for greater flexibility in the selection process, saying she’d be interested in finding a superintendent with professional experience who hadn’t necessarily served in a classroom.

“When you think about it, Blue Valley is really a humongous corporation, and the product is our children,” Becker said. “You want someone with a business perspective to look at every part of our operation.”

Morse said there are requirements for superintendents to be certified, but that they could consider nontraditional candidates.

Besides the meetings, the district has also set up an online survey at http://www.ecrasurvey.com/bluevalley229 that anyone can use to provide their own input into the superintendent search through Oct. 19.

The district board hopes to have a superintendent named by late February or March of next year and have the new superintendent in place by July 1, said Board President Mike Seitz.

Al Hanna is currently serving as interim superintendent.

Seitz acknowledged that the district is undergoing a lengthy process to find a permanent superintendent but said it’s a process that has been successful for other high-performing districts across the country.

“The most important thing is not to find someone quickly,” he said, “but to find someone who is right.”

David Twiddy: dtwiddy913@gmail.com.