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New leaders guide critical shift for village schools

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A narrow victory for new Yellow Springs Board of Education leaders at the board’s Jan. 14 organizational meeting reflects a deep division among board members about how best to address the significant challenges facing the board.

At the meeting Sean Creighton and Benji Maruyama were elected president and vice president, respectively, in a 3-1-1 vote, with Creighton, Maruyama and Angela Wright voting for, Aïda Merhemic voting against and Richard Lapedes abstaining on both votes. There was no discussion regarding the leadership change at the meeting, although there was considerable tension between board members, and Lapedes announced his resignation from the board of the Greene County Career Center, and his unwillingness to take part in upcoming search committees for the district superintendent and treasurer.

Creighton is beginning his third year of a four-year term, and Maruyama is a new board member who in November won a resounding victory in his first race for the seat, unseating incumbent Anne Erickson. Merhemic, the board president of the past two years, in November won re-election to her second term, and Wright was re-elected to her fourth term. Lapedes is in the middle of his second term.

The board this year needs to replace all of the district’s top administrators, including superintendent, district treasurer, and principals of Mills Lawn and Yellow Springs High Schools. In interviews this week, board members identified the upcoming administrative sweep as the reason both for and against the change in leadership.

“Sean brings energy and new ideas” to the president’s position, according to Wright, who added, “We’re looking at a steep learning curve, but he’s willing to take it on.” Creighton advocates creating a new model for a superintendent search process, she said, with more emphasis on outreach to find the right person. Former Superintendent Norm Glismann, widely considered during his two-year tenure a poor fit with Yellow Springs schools, was the result of a process that involved extensive community input, but what some perceived as minimal outreach that resulted in a small pool of finalists for the position. That hiring process was guided by a consultant who had been financed privately by Lapedes and approved by the previous board.

In an interview Monday, Creighton also cited the upcoming administrative changes as an important factor in the need for new leadership.

“Aïda did a great job managing us through the reactive period the board just went through,” he said, regarding the unexpected resignations of several key administrators. “Now we need to be more proactive going forward.”

He and Maruyama also hope to “respect and value everyone’s opinion” on the board, Creighton said, and will promote a process that encourages discourse between board members rather than what he perceived as past pressure to present a united front on issues, which resulted in little board discussion on many topics. He also hopes to “improve communications with all stakeholders.”

The leadership change represents a generational transition, with the new leaders relatively young parents with children in the school system.

In interviews this week Merhemic and Lapedes expressed disappointment in the vote and the process leading up to it. Both she and Lapedes supported Creighton and Maruyama’s desire to take on leadership roles, Merhemic said, but encouraged Creighton to take on the vice presidency this year and the presidency the next, to give him time to develop leadership skills while Merhemic continued as president. The board’s need to fill key administrative gaps makes stable leadership especially critical, she said. While Creighton had agreed on that slower transition, she said, a day before the Thursday meeting, he informed her that he and Maruyama would be seeking the leadership posts.

“I feel the two men are junior members of the board and don’t have qualifications to take on the roles,” she said, citing the “arduous task” of “hiring the entire administrative staff.”

She was especially disappointed by the process, and what seemed like sudden decisions.

“One thing an effective board does is to try to reach consensus,” and that had not happened before the board vote, Merhemic said. “Being careful and thoughtful and respectful is especially important in these times.”

Regarding his abstaining from the votes, Lapedes said that, “I did not understand the intentions of these two, relatively inexperienced leaders. I haven’t a clue.”

He had not asked Creighton and Maruyama their intentions at the meeting because it was their responsibility to initiate that discussion, he said.

The process of changing the leadership team seemed similar to the current “Tea Party” movement, Lapedes said, describing that process as “populist dissatisfaction with the realities of the day.”

“I don’t choose to participate in that process,” he said.

Lapedes said he resigned from the Greene County Career Center board at the meeting, and declined to join the search committees for new administrators because he had lost trust in the new leaders.

“They are assuming I will follow them blindly, and I won’t do that,” he said, describing membership on the Career Center board as “doing double duty” that he would no longer perform.

Given the significant challenges ahead, it’s imperative that all board members step up to help out, Wright said in an interview Monday.

“This is a huge undertaking for the board to take on,” she said of the administrative search processes. “We all have to work together.”

In other organizational business, board members reacted with surprise to Lapedes’ announcement that he was leaving the Career Center board. Wright stated that she would assume the responsibility of serving the term’s remaining two years. In a later interview, Lapedes said he would continue to serve as the Career Center board’s chief negotiator in union negotiations, although he would not serve as a board member.

Wright will also serve on the district’s open enrollment committee and the music committee. Maruyama will be the board’s representative on the Yellow Springs Community Foundation, and Creighton will be board liaison on the Student Achievement board and will also be the legislative liaison. Merhemic will serve on the crisis plan committee, and also on the search committee for the district treasurer and the Mills Lawn principal.

The board approved a variety of housekeeping tasks, including maintaining the board’s current meeting time and place, at 7 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month, at the John Graham board room at Mills Lawn School.

In other board business:

• The board unanimously approved a resolution seeking a renewal of the school district’s emergency tax levy, which will raise $1,060,000 yearly for a five-year period. The levy is a renewal at the same amount as the current levy, which has been renewed several times in the past decade, according to Treasurer Joy Kitzmiller, who cited the levy as providing a “large portion of our operating budget.” The current levy runs out in December, 2010, and the new one would begin in January, 2011.

• The board approved a resolution that creates a hiring committee for a new district treasurer to replace Kitzmiller, who is leaving at the end of February after a 10-year tenure. The new committee will include board members Creighton and Merhemic, staff, administrators, teachers and community members, and will recommend a finalist to the board. According to Interim Superintendent Tony Armocida, a “decent pool of applicants” has applied for the job.

• The board agreed that Creighton and Maruyama will create a new superintendent search process to present to the board. The job opening has already been posted in major state newspapers and educational Web sites, according to Armocida.

• Armocida announced that he will meet later this month with the core hiring committees for the positions of Mills Lawn principal and Yellow Springs High School/McKinney principal. While the board is responsible for hiring the superintendent and district treasurer, the superintendent is responsible for the hiring of building principals.

• The board approved a resolution that states that the district is not obligated to pay for an upcoming construction project with Waibel Energy Systems at Yellow Springs High School if the project does not result in cost savings to the district of approximately $40,000 in current energy costs.

• The board approved a proposed McKinney School eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C. in April, after a presentation by parent Naomi Orme.

• The board approved McKinney School teacher Sarah Lowe’s request to submit a proposal for $5,000 to the Lowe’s (no relation) Outdoor Classroom grant for the construction of a wellness path around the school, as a part of next fall’s school immersion project.

• The board approved Timothy Vest and Victoria Spurgeon as substitute teachers at $80 per day; Kathy Sandru and Alysha Walker as substitute aides at $10 per hour; and Michael Bryan, Alysha Walker and John MacQueen as substitute custodians at $10 per hour.

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