School Board Ponders Replacement Plan for Superintendent Leslie Nichols

by Sally Scott Moore
Primary focus of the Thursday, March 15 School Board meeting was to solidify search plans for a new superintendent following recent announcement of Superintendent Dr. Leslie Nichols’ acceptance of a career-enhancing job offer with Gunnison County School District (WORLD, March 16).
Attending the meeting were Phil Virden, School Board President; Tara Hardy; and Rob Hudgeons. Board member Bill Reinhardt attended the meeting by telephone. Elizabeth Stuntz, whose mother is ill, was unable to attend. Secretary Shawn Arthur and Superintendent Leslie Nichols were also present.
At issue in the leadership succession plan was whether to immediately search for a permanent replacement or install an interim superintendent while a leisurely, more thorough search is conducted.
Following discussion of the matter with legal counsel and educational experts in Denver, Virden noted he had been advised that most school districts began their superintendent search last fall and hiring decisions for the 2018-2019 school year were now being made on that extensive search.
Therefore, they counseled, the hiring pool would be very low and picked over. Best practices, according to Virden, dictated the wisest course was to seek an interim replacement.
Stating “time is of the essence,” Virden opened the floor to comments from his counterparts on the school board. Rob Hudgeons cited hasty decision pitfalls learned from past experience. “From my time as a Town Trustee, I’ve learned the negative benefits of rushing too quickly. There can be long term, negative ramifications if we try to move too quickly toward a hire.”
He added that with a good interim fit in the post, the board could have unlimited leisure to look for just the right replacement. “I’m not afraid to hold off and not hire right away until we are ready to choose. Better to keep an interim for a while than to choose the wrong candidate.”
With general concerns expressed over a transition occurring simultaneously while the district is promoting the new facility, board member Hardy added her support.
“I agree with that approach. I want this to be a fully transparent process and really do a thorough search and find someone who can engage with the community members and the staff effectively.”
Reinhardt added his support, “I agree with all your comments. The only path open to us at this late date is to find an interim, and that will give us time to do a good and thorough search.”
The meeting was attended by a number of Lake City Community School
faculty members. Jen Reinhardt, who teaches 4th and 5th Grades, expressed anxiety over the upcoming transition among teachers. “We are wondering what the next school year with an interim will look like.” With a nod toward Dr. Nichols, she added, “I feel this will be a huge transition since we are so accustomed to so much support from our current principal and superintendent.”
Kindergarten and 1st Grade teacher Lily Fyler noted similar concerns, adding that staff were “really looking toward the BEST grant and generating community support to see the bond issue passed.”
Summarizing the outlook of both board and faculty, Virden said, “Not to glaze over anything, never have I seen such a strong integral team with staff and administration. We don’t want to do anything that would change that. We want to keep momentum and team work tracking as it has been.”
Verbalizing a unified hiring goal, Virden stated, “The superintendent is an extension of the School Board. We want a team member. We hope that generates the waves going forward.”
A special workshop was scheduled for Thursday, March 29, for the board to begin the exploratory process of finding the best interim superintendent for the district.
Following Virden’s hand delivery of the Lake City Community School BEST grant application at the end of February, Dr. Nichols updated next steps to the board. “Currently, with our BEST representative, I am making the presentation plan,” Nichols said. May 13-14 was identified as the dates where applicants would give personal presentations to the BEST grant board on behalf of their applications.
Other agenda items addressed in the meeting included a review by counselor Rebecca Hall of the expanding Advanced Placement classes for Lake City Community School high school students. Hall noted that as a result of the program, the school has seen “impressive admissions success, improved student abilities and success beyond high school into college classes. This is ongoing and exciting.”
Hall cited hopes that further AP class expansion would grow in the sciences.
Dubbed as “exhausting,” Hall described a recent whirlwind college tour trip with nine high school students not affected by the flu. During the 900-mile road trip, Hall and Coach Scoggins led the group through tours of UCCS and Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Adams State, as well as Ft. Lewis in Durango. In Grand Junction, the group explored both Colorado Mesa University and Western Community College. “Next year,” Hall stated, “we plan to do a Denver area college tour.”
Athletic Director Dan Scroggins offered a summary of the Lake City Community School athletic program following the volatile co-op basketball program split from Creede last fall. He described the turnaround and successes in the basketball program, declaring cheerfully, “We are okay on our own without Creede.” On the overall program, he noted, “There has been lots of travel; we have had some success and are sending more and more to State.”
The coach described the ebbs and flows of the size of teams expected to participate from year to year in cross country, basketball and track and field. “Next year we will have our own varsity basketball team.” Enthusiastic about improved local team participation following the break from Creede, Scroggins said, “I feel a connection with more participation from Lake City than I’ve ever seen before. We will keep on moving on. I hope that we get a facility. And our team growth in middle and high school begins in the elementary levels to build the program all the way through to be competitive.”
Paige Thompson delivered an energetic student report, noting Lake City placed eighth overall at the State Knowledge Bowl. Middle School Knowledge Bowl is still ongoing. She reported on various student fund raising efforts. April 14 is the designated date for the upcoming High School Prom with a circus theme: “The Greatest Prom on Earth!”
Michelle Martin, Wee Care board member, addressed Hinsdale School Board to again discuss the proposed merger of Wee Care with the school district. She announced that Tara Ralph, who had stepped in as a temporary director to prevent closure last year, was stepping down immediately. Sara Tubbs has taken over the role, and Taylor Nelson has just been hired to backfill Tubbs’ position.
Martin described ongoing efforts with funding grants and potential support through various foundations. In her comments, Martin noted, “Wee Care always seems in “constant crisis. This is to the detriment of our kids and the quality they receive. In crisis mode, it has been tough to sustain improvement in our program.”
Due to these issues, Martin stated it is advantageous to reiterate why the merger will be a benefit to the district. She led with the advantage of continuity in early childhood development and education. The improved recruitment and retention of staff, should the merger proceed, was cited as an asset, as well as continuing to provide a qualified hiring pool for the district. She noted the enormous negative community impact should the only child care facility in the county close its doors.
A brief presentation followed by school accountant Susan Thompson on the district’s 2018-2019 budget. In this rough first draft of the budget, she explained the biggest expenditure of employee staffing was not yet included. She added that Secure Rural School (SRS) funding is still a question mark, Thompson projecting a modest $27,000 budget surplus.
Thompson, referencing budgetary questions and a pending superintendent upheaval, suggested caution in regard to the Wee Care merger. “Because of the (impending) transition, is this the best time to pick up Wee Care? It gives me pause.”
As the board meeting drew to a close, Nichols, in lieu of a Superintendent report, stated with emotion, “I hope that all the phone calls and emails to all involved have adequately expressed my gratitude for all of your support as I have grown in this job. Working with you all has been top notch.”
Expressing the deep feelings of all the board, Tara Hardy stated, “We want to convey our gratitude to Dr. Nichols for giving us these past five years.”
“You have been a great employee to us. You will be highly missed. Your energy level projecting Fourteener Strong has been amazing. Yours will be big shoes to fill.”