Guiding the School District into the Future Requires Collective Effort

Guest Correspondence

Photo by Tracy Lundgren courtesy PixaBay..

School ended a week ago, and while many students and teachers are beginning to settle into a much-needed break, Sarasota County Schools is preparing to conduct important business during the month of June: the hiring of its next superintendent.

Twenty candidates have applied for this critical leadership position, and finalists will be selected before June 12. The school board identified the qualifications that will distinguish their next superintendent, and through town hall meetings and online surveys, many in the community have shared their preferences.  

For 35 years, the Education Foundation of Sarasota County has been a part of our community, supporting students and teachers. We remain an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and we have a unique perspective, especially as we’ve witnessed six different leaders serve in the capacity of superintendent in the past seven years, some temporarily and two who were terminated. We’ve seen what has worked and what hasn’t. We’ve also grappled with the remarkable ways in which our world has changed in the past several years alone, exacerbating pervasive challenges to levels previously unseen. 

A constant thread through these last several years has been the inconsistency of leadership in the top position at the district. With the disruptions and changes in our society, the school board and the community must approach this next hiring decision with careful consideration and due diligence. 

Like so many across the nation, our school district faces significant challenges. The lingering effects of the pandemic and Hurricane Ian along with other forces continue to manifest in alarming ways, from an increase in behavioral issues across grade levels to stagnating and declining test scores. Last year, graduation rates at five area high schools dropped. Teachers, citing burnout and low morale, are leaving the profession in droves. 

If you attend or watch any school board meeting, you hear the acrimonious debate that has divided our community. Public comments cover the spectrum, from preservation of schools to reformation of education. People advocate on these issues with passion and concern from many perspectives, some more vitriolic and unhealthy than others.

The recent town hall meetings further illuminate these challenges as new realities in public education have set in, including increased politicization, legislative mandates and broad expansion of school choice that have many cheering or crying. People have deeply emotional experiences as these changes take place. Yet, despite all these differences, one common theme remains: our community cares about our kids.

In the face of so many contrary forces, is it reasonable to expect the next superintendent will be the wonder elixir who can solve all these complex problems? What does it really look like to have a strong visionary leader with the adaptability to create positive change, a tenet prescribed by the current school board, if the challenges require more than technical solutions, and if stakeholders haven’t yet agreed on what the change should be? How can systemic challenges be solved when one solution alone may not provide the best return on investment or have a direct cause-and-effect relationship without addressing multiple connecting factors?

Questions like these highlight the challenges awaiting the next superintendent and underscore the importance of hiring a great leader, one who demonstrates the capacity to think boldly, innovate courageously and harness the collective energy from all vested stakeholders. The superintendent is, after all, the CEO of one of Sarasota County’s largest employers. This person will play a key role in setting the vision that will affect thousands of students, who are the next generation.

The next superintendent must have demonstrable experience in building strong teams and empowering team members to accomplish a greater vision. If the district believes we have an exceptional chief academic officer, then let him lead. That is not to say there shouldn’t be oversight, but the most critical aspects of a superintendent are to set a vision, build morale, develop a high performing team and be accountable to the community through transparency and open dialogue.

While hiring a strong leader who will help guide the district is essential, one person can’t solve all these problems. Public education is at a crossroads, moving from what it has been to what it can be. It remains grounded in democratic principles, and it demands everyone involved in public education ensure each and every student is regarded, valued and supported. 

Solutions will be difficult. Many people throughout our community have or might lose faith. But when I think of the many great minds and amazing organizations and stakeholders across our community, of the exceptional educators in Sarasota County Schools and our own creative capacities to innovate, I remain hopeful we can work together to create a vibrant, adaptive educational ecosystem in which all students can thrive. 

That starts with a community working productively to find common ground and strike a shared vision with all stakeholders. We must unite to create better conditions for the superintendent to succeed. After all, the next generation, those young learners who have just begun to recharge for the upcoming school year, depend upon it.

Jennifer Vigne is president and CEO of the Education Foundation of Sarasota County.

Photo by Tracy Lundgren courtesy PixaBay..

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