Three of the finalists for superintendent of the Papillion-La Vista Public Schools were quizzed Tuesday on management style, goal setting and the best strategies for helping poor students.
School board members, who conducted the interviews, also probed the candidates' knowledge of the Learning Community, a sensitive issue for Nebraska's fourth-largest district.
District officials have maintained that the 11-district metro-area cooperative is ineffective, bureaucratic and a drain on the district's tax dollars.
The finalists demonstrated some awareness of the Learning Community and its contentious history, including the controversial common property tax levy designed to shift money from property-rich districts to needy ones.
“Kind of a hot potato” is how Roger DeGroot, superintendent of schools for the Brookings (S.D.) School District since 2007, described it.
Asked if he agreed with the Papillion-La Vista district's position, DeGroot said: “I think it's correct.”
“It's unfair that tax dollars from here have to go there,” he said.
Anita Micich, shared superintendent for the Mason City and Clear Lake community school districts in Iowa, said she would like to see evidence that it's working, learn more about it and “ask some really hard questions.”
“It should be a win-win,” she said.
Ted DeTurk, superintendent of the West Point (Neb.) Public Schools since 2004, said the Learning Community appeared to be an extra layer of governance infringing on local control.
“I don't see how it does anything for student achievement,” he said.
Each candidate underwent about 90 minutes of questioning.
Six finalists are vying to replace Superintendent Rick Black, who will retire June 30.
The others are Joseph Gothard, assistant superintendent for secondary education, Madison Metropolitan School District, McFarland, Wis.; Andrew Rikli, assistant superintendent, Westside Community Schools, Omaha; and Rick Williams, assistant director for administrative services, Education Service Center-Region 10, McKinney, Texas.
The finalists are scheduled for board interviews starting at noon today in the boardroom.
Other questions tossed to the candidates Tuesday included how they would make decisions that were good for education but unpopular with the community, how to judge their own effectiveness and how they would work with the board and administrators.
DeTurk told the board that coming from the West Point district, where enrollment is under 900, he's “a small dog in this fight.”
He said he was honored to be named a finalist for the job he described as “the premier position” in the state. DeTurk said he sees the job as a good fit for him.
“The most interesting piece of this job for me is the fact that it's the next logical step for my career, coming into a Class A school, well-run, well-organized, does exceptionally well from an achievement standpoint,” he said. “I think my philosophy, my vision could enhance that even more.”
Asked what critical issues are facing public education, he said schools have to embrace the next generation of technology and put greater emphasis on early childhood education to improve achievement for poor students.
Before landing the West Point job, he spent six years as principal of Barr Middle School in Grand Island, Neb. Before that, he was a principal and athletic director at Palmer High School in Palmer, Neb.
From 1990 to 1994, DeTurk taught inmates at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility in Ellsworth, Kan. He's a former Boy Scout scoutmaster and a black belt in tae kwon do.
He obtained his doctorate in educational administration from the University of South Dakota, Vermillion, in 2010.
Micich, a former music teacher, said a colleague told her she should apply for the job.
She, too, said it was a logical next step for her.
“The school district is doing great things,” she said. “There's wonderful growth here, some possibilities with the academies, which I'm really excited about seeing happen for juniors and seniors, just a lot of wonderful things happening here that I would enjoy blending my skills with.”
The district has a lot of dedicated employees, she said.
“They're forward thinking, and that's something I'm drawn to as well,” she said.
She said schools need to “go all out” on using technology and should consider that the schools of the future may look different from those today.
She said better use of test data in Mason City has improved teaching.
From 1995 to 2008, Micich worked for the Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa. She was a vice principal, principal and director of secondary alternative education.
DeGroot said his values line up well with the district.
“I think the goals, where they're headed, are the same as mine,” he said. “I think my strengths match this district very well.
“This district offers a tremendous amount of opportunity for kids, and that's the kind of district I want to be a part of.”
Before Brookings, DeGroot was superintendent of the Lennox School District in Lennox, S.D., from 2003 to 2007.
He taught in Creighton, Neb., from 1975 to 1980.
He obtained his doctorate degree in educational administration from the University of South Dakota, Vermillion, in 1995.
Candidates who impress the school board will be called back to participate in public forums next week.
Forums are tentatively scheduled for Monday and Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. The public will be allowed to submit questions that will be read by a moderator.