Unionville completes focus group process in new Super search

Community input, following sessions with students, teachers, employees and parents will help shape the interview process

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com
EAST MARLBOROUGH — Now, the tough part comes.

The Unionville-Chadds Ford School District completed the final phase Wednesday night of a series of focus groups to determine the qualities needed in a new Superintendent of Schools to replace the retiring Sharon Parker.

About two dozen Unionville residents attended the two-hour focus group led by Dr. Joseph O’Brien, the Executive Director of the Chester County Intermediate Unit, which is leading the superintendent search effort for the district.

O’Brien praised the board for insisting on input from all of the stakeholder groups, especially in light of the fairly short time for a search, in light of Parker’s desire to be able to retire as soon as possible.

“They could have done this without input,” he said. “Especially in light of the short time frame. But this board had more focus groups than we typically do, they genuinely want to make this as inclusive as we can.”

One bit of good news O’Brien shared: Parker expressed a willingness to stay on until a new Superintendent is in place, staying beyond her stated departure goal of Aug. 31, no small issue if the candidate comes from another school district and is required to give a number of months notice, eliminating the need to consider hiring an interim superintendent.

Although the gathering was small, in part because of the timing — right in the middle of the summer vacation season — there were a divergent mix of opinions about the priorities for the district in the coming years, reflective of the divide in the community that has been much more visible since the failed Unionville High School renovation bond referendums and subsequent board of education decision to fund the project out of operating funds.

Previous sessions were held with parents, students, teaching staff, support staff, building principals and the rest of the administration. At O’Brien’s suggestion, no board members or Parker attended the sessions, to better foster an environment that would allow frank comment. The comments from all of the sessions will be boiled down by O’Brien and CCIU staff to forge a better sense of what qualities the next superintendent of schools should possess.

O’Brien asked participants to address four issues:

1. Identify the qualities of a superior school leader.

2. Identify the strengths and skill essential for the Unionville-Chads Ford School District’s next Superintendent.

3. Identify issues facing the district in the next five years.

4. Identify obstacles to student achievement and strategies to overcome those obstacles.

The ongoing tension in the community between tax rates and concerns over educational quality drove virtually all of the discussion that followed, whether the focus of the new district leader should be more financial or more academically oriented, or whether continuity — especially in light of the district having four superintendents in the last decade — was more valuable than bringing in a new voice.

Two areas that seemed to get broad agreement was that the new superintendent needed to continue and expand Parker’s outreach to the community and improve district communication efforts, which generally have met with mixed reviews at best, and that the new superintendent must be comfortable with leading in a situation rife with conflict.

O’Brien noted that conflict isn’t that different than what is being seen in a lot of other districts in southeast Pennsylvania.

Other issues ranging from class size to building renovations potentially being needed at Charles S. Patton Middle School and Hillendale Elementary School peppered the spirited conversation.

O’Brien and his staff will take the accumulated responses and use them to create some criteria for the board to use during the interview process. O’Brien said nearly 20 applicants had applied for the job by the deadline, and a few more applications had come in after the deadline, which the board would have to decide whether or not to include in the interview process.

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