As one north St. Louis County school district begins its search for a new superintendent – its fourth leader in a little more than two years – its neighbor is about to decide who will replace a superintendent whose departure created a storm of controversy.
Following the surprise resignation of Ty McNichols last month, the Normandy Schools Collaborative is about to start the process to find his replacement. It plans to evaluate search firms to help look nationwide for a new leader as well as conduct focus groups at home to find out what people want to see in a new superintendent.
That’s a process its neighbor to the north, Ferguson-Florissant, is about to complete. After receiving 141 applications to succeed Art McCoy, it has narrowed its field to two superintendents – Bryan Davis from Wisconsin and Joseph Davis from North Carolina – who met with district personnel and the public last week. The board there hopes to make its final decision early this month, with the new superintendent expected to start work on July 1.
That target date is also what Normandy has in mind. Right now, it has an interim superintendent, Charles Pearson, who had been the president of its state-appointed Joint Executive Governing Board. He said that the board, which began running the reconstituted Normandy schools last July 1, felt it wanted its own leader to make the progress the district needs to raise academic achievement and return to local control.
He notes that state education officials basically gave Normandy three years to show sufficient improvement, and the district is now in the second of those six semesters. So, he said in a recent interview, the time pressure is on to find someone with a demonstrated track record of accomplishment who can take over for the next school year.
“It's critical,” Pearson said, “and the board recognizes that. I will always go back to the refrain of the six semesters. This timeline we're on is constantly moving. That person needs to be in place, and I'm confident they will be in place.”
McNichols had been in the job since July 1, 2013, replacing Stanton Lawrence, who resigned after serving as Normandy superintendent for five years. He left with two years go to on a contract that would have expired this coming June 30.
After McNichols was hired, but before he began serving as superintendent, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a law that allowed students who live in unaccredited school districts to transfer elsewhere, at their home district’s expense. That drain on Normandy’s budget led the state first to take over the district’s finances, then disband the district and its elected board altogether, replacing it with the collaborative, as of last July 1.
At that point, all district employees had to re-apply for their jobs, and McNichols and the rest of his administrative team were working without a contract. Pearson said the board felt it needed to have its own superintendent, so it planned to begin looking nationwide for someone. At that point, McNichols resigned, and Pearson left the board to take the top job on an interim basis.
He says at this point, he hasn’t even thought about whether he would like the job on a permanent basis.
“I am focused on the tenure they gave me, five months,” he said. “That’s my whole focus right now. I haven’t even thought about anything beyond that because I want to be sure this tenure I have makes a difference. I don’t allow myself to do that. It distracts me.”
But, Pearson said, he doubts whether anyone the board chooses to fill the job on a permanent basis would be willing to do without a contract.
“Generally,” he said, “superintendents get a three-year contract, and I can’t see how any superintendent would see this as different.
“This kind of work is multiple-year. So if we are able to attract somebody who has a transformational focus, has a history of transformation in some capacity, that person is going to come and say I can do this, I’m willing to go for it, but I need to know I have the time to get it done.”
Pearson said the district has a plan in place to raise academic achievement; now it needs someone who can help make the plan a reality. But, he added, with Normandy now in the second of its six semesters to turn things around, no one can think about it starting all over again.
“It will be a restart in the sense of the person who is here,” he said of a new superintendent, “but the plan, the idea of what needs to happen for children, what initiatives are in place around curriculum and instruction, around the use of data, that’s not a restart.
“The goals are the same. Strategies can change along the way, but the goals are the same.”
He said the superintendent search could cost up to $50,000. The district is also paying McNichols severance, despite his lack of a contract; the amount of that payout has not been announced.
Originally, the district released a statement saying that McNichols was getting severance because he, like all superintendents in Missouri, was an "at will" employee without a contract. It added: "there are many factors that give an ‘at will’ employee the right to sue and claim that members of a school board acted wrongfully. A severance agreement is a payment for a waiver of any claims a person may have against their former district.”
But when the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education disputed the claim that no superintendent in the state had a contract, Normandy released a revised statement late Friday that dropped that claim and concluded:
"In the State of Missouri, there are many factors that give an “at will” employee the right to sue and claim that members of a school board acted wrongfully. A severance agreement is a payment for a waiver of any claims a person may have against their former district."
In response to a query by St. Louis Public Radio, the district said McNichols' resignation was accepted in a closed session of the JEGB Jan. 22 by a vote of 3-1, with board member Sheila Williams abstaining. Williams is a former member of the elected Normandy board that hired McNichols in 2013.
In October, when Pearson and other JEGB members held an open forum for the community, the audience reaction was strongly negative when he asked whether things were better in the district this year than last. Part of the preparation for the new superintendent search, he says, will be to meet with the public again to solicit their views on what is needed at the top.
“That was already in the works,” he said of another forum. “Now, we have shifted a little bit since the search will take place.”
At a meeting last week of the Normandy Schools Town Hall Organization, a citizens group that has been highly critical of developments in the district in recent years, Pearson told the handful of attendees that he plans to meet with officials from the nearby Jennings and Riverview Gardens schools to learn how they have made the kinds of academic gains that have so far eluded Normandy.
He also said he has a basic plan to help Normandy succeed, including emphasizing reading, maintaining a safe environment and making sure parents take an active interest in their children’s education.
As far as the morale of staff members who have complained that Normandy needs more help from the state, Pearson said that from what he has seen in his short time as interim superintendent, the people who are on the front lines every day are committed to the district’s success.
“We talk a lot about will and skill,” he said. “The people who are here now have said I’ve got the will. I’m still here. And what we’re saying with professional development is that we want to help them develop the skill.
“They’re showing every day that they’re fighting the good fight because they love these children and they believe these children will learn as we recreate this environment.”
Davis vs. Davis in Ferguson-Florissant
As Pearson was marking the end of his first week in charge at Normandy, the two finalists for superintendent in Ferguson-Florissant were meeting with district personnel and the public in a series of forums.
District officials said of the 141 people who applied for the top job, 33 were current superintendents and 19 more were former or interim superintendents.
Chosen as finalists were Bryan Davis, now in his fifth year as superintendent of schools in Columbus, Wis., and Joseph Davis, now in his third year as superintendent of schools in Washington County, N.C.
Prior to becoming superintendent, Bryan Davis was a principal in Green Bay and began his career as a teacher of business education and coach at the high school level.
Joseph Davis began his career teaching middle school math before moving to administration. He has held several administrative positions in his native North Carolina as well as serving as deputy chief of schools in Chicago in 2012.
Whoever gets the nod will replace McCoy, who was placed on administrative leave in November 2013 and later resigned without details of the board’s displeasure with him being made public. The controversy shone a light on the fact that while McCoy was African American, and the district has a majority of African-American students, the school board at that time had no African-American members.
Before meeting with the public in two sessions last week, both candidates met with reporters.
Asked whether the international attention on Ferguson following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown had made them hesitate to apply for the job, both said no.
“Ferguson to me means opportunity,” Bryan Davis said. “That’s something that’s been reinforced in the last four or five years that I’ve had an opportunity to see. Obviously this is a great opportunity. We know that the nation and the world are watching Ferguson right now.
“Our opportunity to move the district forward, with a great staff and great kids that we have here, provides an opportunity for all of us here to be national and for that matter international leaders in public education.”
Joseph Davis said:
“I hadn’t heard a whole lot about Ferguson until the Michael Brown situation, and I think that’s not necessarily fair, when you think about what has happened, and what is here.
“I did my research. I still am learning. But this is a great community…. I uncovered the layers and began to look at what’s in this community. It’s deeper than what we’ve seen in the media.”
Asked about the reaction to the departure of McCoy, both men said they wanted to make sure to connect to the community.
Bryan Davis said put it this way:
“We’re going to go out and listen to people. My grandfather always said I’ve got two eyes, two ears and one mouth for a reason. The more I talk, sometimes the worst it get. So we’re going to go out there and learn what the community is about.”
And Joseph Davis also stressed the importance of relationships.
“Sometimes, when we look at schools and communities, especially when they are poor communities, and largely when they’re communities of color, we have lower expectations, and we shouldn’t.
“We just have to have great people around to make it happen, and have the courage to make it happen. Don’t be afraid of some of the challenges you face. Because I was one of those little black boys in school who came from a poor community, and I had great opportunities. But you have to have courage and adults who can make it happen.”