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Lee County superintendent job could be filled next week, avoiding interim or vacancy

May 22, 2013

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Constance Jones

What they said

• Don Armstrong: “Part of me says this is too fast and we need to do a process, but I also want forward progress in this district, so I’m split. This is the biggest decision a board can make and it’s a very difficult decision to make.”
• Jeanne Dozier: “What is immedidate is someone who can come in and heal the district, that’s where I feel we need to be... I’ve always been under the pretense that somebody close to home, who knows the district, knows where the bones are buried and swept under the carpet, they can come in and hit the ground running in every way. I’ve always had that mantra.”
• Mary Fischer: “We did have strong leadership for a long tenure. We were able to adapt something new, able to move forward and get ourselves in position statewide that was pretty remarkable. If we have people here, that are doing the job, familiar with the community and have a level of trust and involvement, then we need to look a little closer to home.”
• Cathleen Morgan: “(In the past) the mistake was someone came in with a plan without knowing the people and without involving them in the process. When I talk about a change agent, I talk about the kind of leader who comes in and takes time to get to know the district, recognize and identify the strengths and weaknesses.”
• Tom Scott: “We have to have someone step into the job on (June 20). An interim basis, whether you use the term or not... that’s sends mix signals out to the organization. I personally didn’t think that was necessary. We need to make a decision.”

Lee’s director of east zone operations. Former Lee human resources chief.
Principal at Naples High School. Former candidate for Lee superintendent position in 2011.
Constance Jones
Interim Gulf Middle School Principal. Current candidate for superintendent’s position in Polk County.
Current exeutive director of budget for Lee; 10 years with the district.
Principal of at North Fort Myers Academy for the Arts.
Mike McNerney Retired. Former Lee chief administrative officer.
Deputy superintendent in Charlotte County schools.

Nancy Graham is currently the principal at Naples High School and is one of four candidates for the position of Lee County schools' superintendent. / Marc Beaudin/
Dr. Ami Desamours


Recurring candidates in superintendent search: Video interviews and photos from 2011

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No job posting. No need to submit a resume. No application and no formal interviews.

In one week, Lee County school board members could appoint a new top administrator to take over the ninth-largest school district in the state — a district with a $1.3 billion budget.

The school board decided Tuesday morning to bypass finding an interim superintendent or hiring a firm to conduct a search for Superintendent Joseph Burke’s replacement. Burke will retire June 19.

Some wondered: What’s the rush?

Dorothy Lauber, a school social worker, said she doesn’t see the need to put a timeline on the search and the board shouldn’t hurry to fill the seat.

“Please let them think it out carefully,” she said. “And I’m of the agreement that they should hire from within the district.”

At a morning meeting to set parameters for a superintendent search, the board quickly moved to a finalist list for the permanent position.

The board plans to develop an action plan and award its top candidate a two-year contract on Tuesday, said board Chairwoman Mary Fischer. That contract would require the candidate to be evaluated every three months by the board. It would also award a third contract year, if the board finds the new superintendent has hit their benchmarks.

Those top candidates include Naples High Principal Nancy Graham, former Lee Deputy Superintendent Mike McNerney, North Fort Myers Academy for the Arts Principal Doug Santini, Lee budget director Ami Desamours, Lee East Zone Director Greg Adkins, Charlotte County Deputy Superintendent Donna Widmeyer and Gulf Middle School interim Principal Connie Jones.

(Page 2 of 5)

Between today and next Tuesday, board members will look to meet any of the candidates they don’t already know in order to better inform their decision.

“We need someone to settle things down,” said Fischer. “We’re at a point where we need some healing within our forces and ranks. We need to look at the fact that we have impending changes for 2014-15 school year that will keep coming at us with a force and we need somebody who can hit the ground running.”

Board member Cathleen Morgan wanted to immediately select an internal interim superintendent and conduct a nationwide search, but other members were against that.

The majority of the country is moving to Common Core State Standards, so the challenge isn’t unique to Florida, and a search firm can assess the district’s strengths, weaknesses and needs, Morgan said.

“We need to tackle this in a professional manner just as a corporation would,” she said. “You always have internal candidates, but you have to look at the internal candidates’ potential against external.”

A search firm would find about eight to 10 candidates that a search committee would narrow down and present to the board for appointment, Morgan said.

“This is not a time to have an interim person here,” said board member Tom Scott. “There is too much in front of us. Too many requirements that need to be dealt with firmly. We’ve been through a national search. We had 43 candidates from around the country with great credentials, brought the list down to five and made our decision.”

That search, which brought Burke into the district, happened less than 18 months ago and involved community members, staff, students and parents, said Fischer, “I don’t know how much of that would change in a year and a half.”

The front-runner among the board members was Naples High Principal Graham, who ranked high among community and board members during the previous superintendent search. In that last search, Dozier voted for Jones and Fischer originally voted for Graham before changing her vote for Burke.

(Page 3 of 5)

But that doesn’t mesh well with some groups who feel they’ve been left out of the process.

Teachers Association of Lee County President Mark Castellano said the No. 1 choice that the union could standby is East Zone Director Greg Adkins or Interim Gulf Middle School Principal Constance Jones. Jones is also a former Lee interim superintendent and former chief academic officer; she’s currently a finalist for superintendent’s position in Polk County.

“There’s really only one name on that board that they put forward today: … Dr. Greg Adkins,” Castellano said. “The other name I can live with is Dr. Jones. All of the other names are people we could not move forward with because they have not been a part of the work, and it’s that simple.”

Besides individual conversations with board members, the teachers’ union hasn’t been approached for their input, Castellano said, adding that there’s nothing that legally requires a school board to consult with residents or teachers before appointing a superintendent, but that has been the tradition.

Castellano said he’s not concerned about the short time frame the board has put itself on, because all of the education changes that are taking place, including the district’s ongoing bargaining sessions, have put the district in a crunch.

“I have no problem with them picking someone by next Tuesday,” he said. “But they need to make the intelligent decision and that’s what I’m concerned about.”

Board member Don Armstrong said he was surprised by how cordial and amiable board members were when discussing replacing Burke, but still felt the situation was rushed.

“I think it’s too fast,” said Armstrong. “Part of me says it’s too fast and we need to do the (search) process, but I also want forward progress in this district. So I’m split on it. It’s a big decision. The biggest a board can make.”

Armstrong said he wants to reach out to people in the community and get their opinions about the candidates.

“I’m not real thrilled with most of the candidates on there,” he said. “Nancy Graham was someone the community at-large did like. That is something I take into consideration. It does bother me a little that that search was two years ago. That’s why it might be too quick.”

(Page 4 of 5)

Desamours, Lee’s budget director, said it’s an honor to be on the board’s shortlist for superintendent.

“It means a lot that they think I would have the appropriate skills and ability,” said Desamours, who has worked in Lee County for 10 years. “It’s a surprise because I’ve been focused on trying my best at performing the job I’ve been doing. The budget situation over the past several years has been all consuming, so it’s not something that I was even thinking about.”

Doug Santini, principal at North Fort Myers Academy for the Arts, said he was somewhat surprised his name was brought up. A 40-year administrator in Lee County schools, the 70-year-old has never been a superintendent.

Santini, however, was on the Lee County school board from 1994-98. As an educator, he’s known for turning around North Fort Myers Academy of the Arts. Santini focused on hiring good teachers in transforming the school no one wanted to go to into a perennial “A” school.

“It’s a big honor that they thought of me in that way,” said Santini. “It’s great when a board member has that much respect for me.”

Santini said no one at the school board has contacted him. He said he would be interested in the superintendent job if all five members of the board want him.

“It has to be a united board. Five people together,” Santini said. “There are things needed to be worked on to get us going in the right direction.”

Santini said his top strength is working with people. His experience in Lee schools is also a strong factor. Santini said he’s surprised the school board wants to hire a superintendent in a week.

“That’s kind of quick,” Santini said. “But I think they want somebody for a year or two. They want somebody more than an interim.”

Retired Lee County Deputy Superintendent Mike McNerney received a tip that his name might be brought up. McNerney, who was Lee schools’ second-in-command from 2002-10, said a Lee County administrator called him a few weeks ago asking if he would be interested in becoming interim superintendent.

(Page 5 of 5)

McNerney declined to say which administrator called him. McNerney, who is living in a small town near Gainesville called Fanning Springs, said he would be willing to end his retirement and move back to Fort Myers to become the schools’ chief.

“Absolutely,” said McNerney, who is working as an adjunct professor at the University of Florida. “If they decide I’m their person, I would go. I spent a lot of years in Fort Myers.”

McNerney, 71, worked in Lee for 41 years. He said his daughter is employed by the school district and that his granddaughter is attending schools here. He said he spends a lot of time visiting his granddaughter in Fort Myers.

“We never gave up our roots there,” McNerney said. “We have tremendous friends. I have golfing buddies and I win some money off them. I’m on a fixed income so it’s important to keep up.”

McNerney was surprised that the school board wants to hire a superintendent next week.

“Goodness, that is moving quickly,” McNerney said with a laugh. “But at the same time, you don’t want to let the moss grow on the tree. I think it’s admirable that they have that quick of a timeline. Certainly, I’m ready to go.”

What's next

The board will rank their candidates at a workshop 10 a.m. Tuesday, followed by a special meeting at noon to appoint the next superintendent.

Staff writers Chris Umpierre and Jackie Winchester contributed to this report.

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