The Sitka School Board is going to shake the tree for a week to see if an interim superintendent candidate falls out, before launching into a full-scale search for a permanent hire.

The board met in special session Thursday night (2-10-23) to consider how best to start looking for a new person to lead the Sitka School District.

Sitka Superintendent Frank Hauser submitted his resignation the first week of February. Although it’s a full month earlier than when former Superintendent Mary Wegner asked to be released from her contract, it’s just on the cusp of being too late to hire someone to begin work on July 1.

In fact, Timi Tullis, a hiring consultant with the Alaska Association of School Boards, said hiring season for school administrators across the state is wrapping up just about now.

“Copper River had two finalists chosen, and they were supposed to come into town this week to interview and both have accepted other jobs before they came to Copper River,” Tullis said. “So they have reopened theirs. And this week we have Aleutian East, Unalaska, and Bristol Bay are supposed to pick their finalists. Then we have Fairbanks who is in the middle of theirs, Juneau, Iditarod, and Southeast Island just this week have determined they’re going to be doing a search. And then of course you. I’m not trying to scare anyone, I am just saying this is the reality as of today.”

The meeting was well attended by district staff, several of whom urged the board to move forward with a permanent hire, and to train its sights on someone with practical experience in both the classroom and in the administration.

Another theme that came out in testimony was finding a candidate who might want to settle in Sitka, if they weren’t here already.

Sitka High Teacher Freddie Charbonneau – “The Sitka School District will intentionally develop haa’ latseeni, or strength of mind, body, and spirit, to inspire and prepare students to be compassionate and empowered, and to equip critical thinkers within a global community. This is the mission of the school district… And it is really important that when we’re looking for a leader, we are looking for someone who will live by this mission, and will encourage others to also do the same.”

Blatchley principal Ben White (reading from an email) – “Please consider prioritizing two key factors: The candidate having multiple years of actual classroom level teaching experience, and having multiple years of building level administrative experience. A significant part of any school superintendent’s job is to help inform teachers and administrators how to best do their jobs so that children reap the greatest educational benefit.”

Blatchley teacher Alexander Allison – “Please prioritize hiring somebody who is fully invested in living in, and being a member of, our community year round with their whole family.”

Tullis, who appeared via zoom, was visibly taking notes during public comment, but she cautioned everyone to lower their expectations slightly. Like a matchmaker counseling a bride, Sitka might get some of what it wants, but might have to settle for less than all it wants.

“I heard a few people talking about the essentialness of having both teacher and building level experience,” said Tullis. “And I’m not disagreeing with that. I just want to remind everyone in the room that currently our nation is facing a terrible teacher shortage. And because of that, we’re facing a building administrators/central office shortage. And because of that  we’re facing a superintendent shortage. It’s just the reality of where we are now.”

The board was of two minds on how to proceed. Student member Felix Myers argued that the board needed a permanent superintendent in place sooner rather than later, because this person would take the lead in negotiating a new contract with teachers next year. He didn’t think such an important role should fall to a temp.

“What our students want is to make sure that we at least try first to get someone who can be here long term,” Myers said, “because when it comes to those discussions that are going to be essential next year, they want to make sure that person is in good faith when it comes to those discussions.”

Members Tristan Guevin, Mitch Mork, and Blossom Teal-Olsen favored going with a highly-experienced interim superintendent, to buy time for a more thorough search for a permanent hire. This approach was used when the district hired former superintendent John Holst to work for a year following Wegner’s departure in 2019. Teal-Olsen said she had been urged by the public to take the time to get it right.

” The consensus being there’s no rush,” Teal-Olsen said. “And I want to stay true to the community and how they feel. And ultimately I would like to find a candidate that will be long term, committed to the community, integrated into the community, and will represent Sitka, as they should.” 

In the end, the board decided 4-1, with Myers opposed, to take a week (until February 16) to solicit letters of interest from interim candidates – just to see who was out there. If no one turned up who fit the bill, they’d ask Tullis and the Alaska Association of School Boards to initiate a search for a permanent replacement, with costs not to exceed $15,500.