BY BENJAMIN J. GOHS, EDITOR
PHOTOS BY CHRIS FAULKNOR
The Boyne City school system is closer to having a new superintendent following lengthy meetings late last week.
The Boyne City Public Schools Board of Education voted 7-0 to schedule second interviews with two of the candidates—Patrick Little and Louis Steigerwald—after hearing from four interested parties last Thursday and Friday.
A fifth candidate dropped out of the running to take a job elsewhere.
Following are highlights of the interviews.
The first interview on Thursday April 28 was of Christopher Parker, the Superintendent, K-12 Principal and Transportation Director of Northport Public School.
Parker graduated from Michigan State University with a bachelor’s degree in science and received his master’s degree in social work from Western Michigan University.
Following that, Parker was in charge of a runaway and homeless youth program in Midland. Then, in 1999, he and his wife moved to Traverse City. Parker then worked for Manistee Benzie Community Mental Health before working in school social work at Kingsley middle and high schools. He then worked as a school social worker for the Traverse Bay Area ISD where he became a behavior consultant. Parker’s work also included working as a school principal and in private practice before taking his most recent position.
“Why I have applied to be your superintendent is I believe that this is an outstanding community,” Parker said. “I think that there are tons of opportunities for the students and I believe that I would be a good person to direct the staff and the community to the next level to continuously improve things that are already great that are going on here.”
Parker said he believes it is important for a superintendent to be highly visible in the local community, adding that he is currently on a chamber of commerce board, participates in Leadership Leelanau—similar to Team Boyne—he has spoken at his local Rotary Club, League of Women Voters, Lions Club and he attends many after school programs and events.
Parker, who has school-age children, said he understands the concerns of parents, and uses that knowledge to better do his job.
“Part of that is the job—I want people to be able to see me and know that I care about the community and that I’m a part of the community—and, the other part is, as a parent, my kids are active and involved and so I’m at their things,” he said.
Parker was asked numerous questions by the board of education, including his thoughts on standardized testing, conflict resolution and changes in policy he may have overseen.
Parker said the rules and regulations which force schools to consider how they are teaching and what they are teaching have been good for educators and students because it has forced them to look at how they do their jobs and how they can do them better.
As far as policy, Parker could not think of any specific policies he changed but said he did work closely with a legislator concerning the recent school system legislation which would effectively have been a gag order on schools, preventing them from communicating with the media and parents concerning millages and bond issues.
Parker said he uses perspective and a sense of humor to deal with conflicts.
“I try not to take myself too seriously,” he said. “Obviously, when people get upset they want to be listened to, they want to be heard. And, I think that’s where it begins … I do a whole lot of listening and what I’m looking for are places where we can come together and have mutual agreements.”
The board also asked Parker what his biggest failure as an educational leader has been and what lesson he learned from it.
“Why is every student in my building or in my district not hitting it out of the park?” he said, adding that he and his staff try to address student achievement as much as they can but that he still wishes he could do more.
Parker was asked how he would transition from a more hands-on leader to the head of the school system’s administration and how he would delegate responsibilities.
“I’m OK with not having to do everything,” he said… “If I feel like folks are able to get that done, I’m totally fine to let them do that.”
Parker also said he is a big supporter of early childhood education.
Monique Dean, the Superintendent of Pellston Public Schools, has worked in education for nearly 29 years, 22 of those years were spent as a classroom teacher working with students in kindergarten through fifth-grade.
She also worked as an elementary school principal and then as the superintendent at Pellston for the last three years.
Dean said her family moved to Boyne City in the 1970s and she has been a member of the community most of her life.
“I am passionate about kids, passionate about offering opportunity to all students,” she said. “And, through the curriculum and programs that you offer in Boyne City, I believe that there is a match between my skills and your needs.”
Dean was asked how she would strengthen relationships among the school system, local businesses and other branches of local government.
Dean said her familiarity with Boyne City makes her comfortable in reaching out to organizations and businesses to work toward growing established relationships.
Dean was asked about her level of visibility as a superintendent.
“If you have an opportunity to look at the last two evaluations from my board of education, you’ll see one of my greatest strengths is visibility in the community and (school events,)” she said…. “Having that comfort level and being visible is something that I would love to be able to transition from the community that I don’t live in to the community that I do live in.”
Dean said it is important to her to remain informed about legislation that may affect local schools.
When asked what the most pressing issue is in education today, Dean said, “Funding is always a concern. Pressure for continuous improvement academically and on state assessments is important but, I think, as a superintendent, to stay focused on our purpose is the most important thing; and, that is teaching in the classroom.”
Dean said balance is important when considering state requirements and a child’s education. And, though benchmarks must be met, there are many other ways student achievement can be measured other than by standardized testing.
Dean was then asked about her conflict resolution strategy.
“I like to begin my conflict resolution by beginning with that we’re all here for the same reason,” she said. “We might see things from different perspectives but we all need to presume positive intentions and look for resolution collectively.”
Dean added that open communication with parents is crucial to the process.
Dean was asked about her biggest failure as an educator and what lesson she learned from it.
She said she noticed her district was struggling with math and, after some digging, she found none of her math department had math endorsements—they did not specialize in mathematics—so she worked to move staff that were more specialized into the appropriate locations.
However, she said her greatest mistake was not communicating enough with parents to let them know about the staffing changes she was making.
“You can never have enough communication with parents or the board, with teachers, with the rest of the staff, with community—communication, communication, communication,” Dean said, adding that it was a good lesson that lead to a new website, meetings and better communication on matters in the future.
Dean was asked about any policy changes she has initiated.
Dean said her school system adopts and updates policies as new legislation is passed.
Dean said she has increased the number of workshops for her school board to help them work better together and better understand their roles as board members.
Dean was asked about a time when she instituted a change or program that benefited her students.
She said, when she was a principal in Pellston, she found that many of the dollars intended for low-income students were being applied inconsistently.
“We were able to, in less than four years, be identified … for lowering the achievement gap between our students,” Dean said. “So, I would say that is definitely one of our greatest shining stars.”
The second set of interviews was held on Friday April 29.
Louis Steigerwald, who has 26 years in public education, has been Superintendent of Norway-Vulcan Area Schools for five years. Prior to that he was a high school principal at South Lake for five years and in Oscoda as the curriculum director for one year. He said he left Oscoda for the South Lake job.
Most of his career he spent at Cass Technical High School, where he said he learned that kids from all backgrounds can do great things.
Steigerwald said the projections for growth in the Upper Peninsula are negative, and to address that, his board is looking to turn his position into a superintendent/principal position and he would rather remain a superintendent only.
Steigerwald said he feels Boyne City is similar to his current school system and that would make him a good match.
He also agreed that being visible and active in the community are important for a superintendent.
Steigerwald said he stays in communication with his state representative and senator to stay abreast of legislative issues that may affect local schools.
“I enjoy that part of my job quite a bit,” he said.
Steigerwald was asked what he feels the most pressing issues in education are today.
He said, just based on inflation, his school is getting $1,000 less in funding per student than they should be.
Steigerwald said there is going to be trouble getting teachers in the future and that it has started already.
Teacher wages are either flat or falling due to funding shortages from the state, and Steigerwald said he has had trouble getting teachers to even apply for various positions.
“It’s not that you want to throw money at anything, of course. But, if you want the best and brightest to go into our profession, you have to offer them easily a Middle Class lifestyle,” he said. “So, that is a huge issue in education.”
Steigerwald said the other thing that would be helpful is if the legislature would stop changing rules and regulations and requirements all the time.
Steigerwald was asked if current standardized testing is a hindrance to educating students. He said that there are some tests which don’t give teachers any feedback on their kids until after the kids are gone.
When asked what his biggest failure was, he said he hates when any kid does not graduate.
“The hardest thing for me going into administration … there’s where you really have to deal with kids who are dealing with things in their lives that no child should have (to),” Steigerwald said.
Steigerwald was asked his thoughts on technology in schools. He said he wants more technology used in schools because it doesn’t matter what field future workers go into, they will need to know how to use technology.
“It’s going to pay (for) our kids to know how to work with that,” he said. “I want our kids to be able to know how to use technology and be imaginative with technology because I want them to get the jobs.”
Steigerwald added that technology will also help give future generations an opportunity to stay where they grew up instead of having to leave the area to get a job in their field.
Similar to Boyne City, Steigerwald said his current school district has been spending down its general fund savings over the years in order to maintain program levels.
Steigerwald said maintaining at least a 10-percent fund equity is necessary to cover unforeseen issues which may arise.
He was then asked about his experience in collective bargaining.
“I have an open-door policy,” Steigerwald said, adding that he talks with his union presidents regularly.
He added, “It’s always a challenge, especially in times where … we’re way behind in where we should be for funding.”
Steigerwald said negotiations can be tense at times—especially when there are massive increases in healthcare costs.
Steigerwald said he prefers long-term contracts with staff though it’s difficult with financial uncertainties at the state level.
Patrick Little, who has been the superintendent of East Jackson Community Schools for the last three years, has also worked as a middle school principal, an assistant high school principal, and most of his administrative work has been with students grades six through eight.
As a superintendent, he has overseen the renovation of a new school building for nearly 550 elementary students.
“One thing that you’ll find is that I’m passionate about student growth,” said Little, who earned his master’s degree in curriculum and policy from MSU. He also has a degree in educational leadership from Eastern Michigan University.
When Little was a teacher, he taught social studies and English mainly at the high school level in addition to coaching football and baseball.
Little said his work in administration was a calling.
“I have always been someone who has wanted to solve problems, create opportunities,” he said, adding that Boyne’s school district’s needs are a great fit for his personality and goals.
“The thing that attracts me to Boyne City is the greatness,” he said. “There is an element of Boyne City, a spirit, if you will … that Boyne City schools is expecting greatness from its schools, from its teachers and administrators, and from its students.”
Little added, “There’s a high expectation from parents that the schools are gonna deliver for their kid.”
Little said he would challenge the school system to keep the great parts great and make the good parts even better.
Little said he would continue and grow relationships with the community by attending community events, being active in school events and not just sporting events.
Little works with a program called “Cradle to Career” that works with businesses and governmental agencies to work with students to help prepare them for their future.
Little was asked if he feels testing hinders a child’s education. Little said testing can be valuable if you have a good assessment.
“I personally have helped teachers … to really take a look at their curriculum and find holes and then they adjust what they’re teaching, they spend more time on one topic than another and it does make a difference,” he said, “if you have a quality assessment—and, that is where we’re struggling in this state.”
Little was then asked about his conflict resolution strategy. He said that goes back to building good relationships before conflict happens and visibility and having people skills.
“I think that’s the best foundation for resolving conflicts,” Little said, adding that he always works to make sure people have accurate information about the incident in question before starting to resolve the matter. He also said finding common ground is important to solving an issue.
Little was asked about a professional failure and what he learned from it. He said when he was an assistant principal he was also in charge of that system’s alternative school. He said he was probably a little cavalier and didn’t have experience working with kids in that type of situation.
“What I learned from it was you have to read the situation,” Little said. “You have to learn who you’re talking to and what their needs are before you decide your communication styles.”
Little said literacy is very important to him, so much so that a literacy program he helped institute led one of his schools to be lauded by the state for student educational growth.
Little was asked about his process when developing a budget.
“There’s a pragmatic approach you have to take starting in about December … you move the seniors out, make your projections with kindergarten—which is usually the first real assumption in the budget—you do your totals, start guessing what the state’s going to give you,” he said, adding that he and his business manager have a good working relationship.
Little said they go line by line looking at what they spent in the current year to help make a determination on what they will need for the next school year.
After he works up the first draft, then Little said he goes over the budget with his department heads to see what their needs are and adjusts the budget accordingly.
Little said Boyne’s 10 percent fund balance is a good bare minimum but, now that the economy is doing better, the school system should save more money to help weather storms in the future while balancing a good level of programs.
Little said the fund balance at his current school system is 2.77 percent. He said the low amount of savings has been impacted by spending on a major renovation program, and due to declining enrollment.