BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — On the eve of last fall’s election, School Committee candidates were asked their No. 1 priority for improving the struggling public schools.
Two first-time candidates who ended up winning seats, Rachel Hunt and Patrick Schultz, gave virtually the same answer: leadership.
“Excellent principals are absolutely critical, especially in turnaround schools,” Schultz wrote to The Salem News in November.
The same theme came up last month when the School Committee went on retreat. The top priority for the school system, most agreed, is hiring, supporting and holding accountable school leaders.
The effort to find the next round of school leaders began this week when notices went out about principal vacancies at Collins Middle School and Nathaniel Bowditch, a K-8 school, as well as at Bates Elementary School.
Vacancies at the two middle schools take on even more importance since they come as Salem is exploring the possibility of realigning or at least revamping its middle school program. In addition, Salem will be replacing two longtime leaders at Collins (Mary Manning) and Bates (Tom LaValley). Bowditch currently has an interim principal.
Salem is not only looking for new principals, but leaders who want to work in a school district trying to rise from under the cloud of a Level 4 designation as an underperforming district.
Rather than a liability, school officials hope the Level 4 status will be a magnet.
“We want people who want to be in a turnaround setting,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll, who chairs the school board.
“So much is going on (here) that actually is an advantage in this case,” Superintendent Stephen Russell said. “The kind of person we’re looking for has had turnaround experience and gone through this in an urban setting and is quite excited to take up the challenges ... There are certain principals and administrative leaders really looking for that kind of professional opportunity.”
Salem has hired the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center at UMass Boston to help in the search. Under the terms of a $20,000 contract, the center will help Salem reach out to a broad spectrum of school leaders with urban and turnaround experience, Russell said.
“We were pretty clear ... that we needed to bring additional resources to this search given that there are three principal searches and they are so vital to the turnaround effort,” Russell said. “It has taken on much more of a level of importance ...”
The School Committee is considering raising the salary levels for principals to attract better candidates.
Focus groups are underway with parents and staff at each school. Applications are due in early March, a screening committee is being formed, and new principals could be selected by May.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.