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Amid unprecedented uncertainty around what classes will look like in the fall, and with the district still facing unanswered questions around its aging facilities, the Board of Education (BOE) is diving into the search for a new permanent school chief. Last week the BOE hired Dr. JeanAnn Paddyfote on an interim basis to replace Superintendent of Schools Tom Scarice.
“This is probably the most consequential decision that any board can make,” BOE Chair Katie Stein said. “And I think for that reason it is important that we get the right fit that will illuminate the wonderful education system we have here in Madison.”
Though she emphasized nothing is certain and the search committee has no fixed timeline, Stein said she her goal is to have a permanent candidate chosen by the beginning of 2021.
The BOE has already received 14 responses to its request for proposals from hiring consulting firms, which is a very positive sign for the search process, Stein said.
Despite all the unknowns ahead and the relatively abrupt nature of Scarice’s departure, Stein said there is no sense of extra rush or hurry to find a permanent superintendent.
“We feel comfortable going through...a normal search process, from a time perspective,” said BOE member Kirk Barneby, who is chairing the Superintendent Search Committee. “Would we like to do the search in a reasonable period? Absolutely. Do we feel pressure to try and accelerate it? No.”
A large portion of that confidence stems from the trust BOE has in Paddyfote, Barneby and Stein both said.
After serving for more than 35 years in administration in the New Milford school district, including 10 as superintendent, Paddyfote retired in 2016. She then spent parts of the last three years in Avon and Ridgefield, also serving as superintendent on an interim basis.
Stein pointed out that Paddyfote actually helmed Ridgefield during the early parts of the pandemic crisis and transition to remote learning this past March, giving her the kind of experience and insight that almost no other potential hire could have had.
Though Paddyfote doesn’t start officially until July, Stein said she has already attended some BOE committee meetings and has been “plugged in” with state officials about what school will look like this fall.
“I think her base of knowledge is vast, and she brings a lot of expertise to our district under normal circumstances, but in addition to that, she has shown that she is both engaged and has been kept up to speed on all the many plans...coming down the pipe,” Stein said.
As they begin the pursuit of a permanent superintendent, Barneby and Stein both acknowledged Madison has unique characteristics and challenges for any incoming candidate, most notably, the aging school buildings that will require some form of maintenance or overhaul in the immediate future.
A $129 million renewal plan, which would have demolished two of the town’s elementary schools and funded the construction of a brand new one, is still something the BOE stands behind, Stein said, though a planned referendum to let voters decide on this was canceled last month due to the pandemic.
Stein also acknowledged that the shifting economic realities of the pandemic could alter this plan, and in the past has pledged to work with other town officials on any necessary changes to how the town will address its school facilities.
As far as how a new superintendent would deal with this, Stein said, being able to navigate these complex issues will be “part of the job description.”
“It’s no secret to anybody looking at our district that our facilities are in need,” Stein said. “Obviously that will be part of the interview process, [and] any orientation to the town or the district as we go through the interview process.”
Stein said that after speaking to First Selectman Peggy Lyons and Board of Finance Chair Jean Fitzgerald, she did not anticipate any major or substantive movement being made about plans for the schools until early 2021.
The search process itself will be dictated by the realities of the pandemic as well, with everything being conducted virtually, though Barneby said he did not anticipate this causing any kinds of delays or difficulties even if the BOE considers candidates outside the area or the state.
“That will be one of the parameters at which we’d look in deciding on the firm that will eventually work with us in the selection process,” Barneby said.
Overall, though, both Stein and Barneby said they did not think any of these pending issues or new circumstances would be a detriment to the candidate search, and said they felt strongly that Madison was an attractive destination for potential candidates.
“There are innumerable things that I could mention about our school system and why it is sought after and attractive to people moving to Madison,” Stein said. “The success that we see kids have, we want to continue that strong foundation in our community.”
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