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Letter: ‘Let the Search Begin’

When Westbury schools Superintendent Dr. Constance Clark-Snead announced her retirement, effective June 30, at the Jan. 19 board of education meeting, it ended months of speculation as to which way the board would decide with regards to her tenure in the district. Such speculation heightened following her decision not to take the job of superintendent for the Teaneck, NJ School District, five days before she was expected to report for the position after being hired in March 2010. The fact that there were also three new board members resulting from the 2010 elections added to the intrigue, as this would have been among their first major decision of such far-reaching significance. Now that the public is aware that the board did not intend to extend Dr. Clark-Snead’s contract beyond June 30, 2012, it is time to begin the search for a new superintendent for the district.

If there are tactical, or practical reasons for not beginning the search, the board is not sharing them with the public, as each time inquiries are made regarding this matter, the answer is always the same: we are working on it. There may well be plausible reasons for not beginning the search at this time, or any time soon for that matter, perhaps opting instead to appoint an interim superintendent from among the ranks of educators in the district, hoping that more favorable conditions to pass budgets will prevail (reconsidering the 2 percent tax cap) and thereby making it easier to attract good candidates for the permanent post. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem as more and more school districts, especially those with limited commercial tax base, are singing the blues about the devastating impact this restriction will have on their ability to provide a first-rate education for the children.

One thing is clear, regardless of when the search begins, Westbury’s unique situation among school districts in Nassau County (low wealth-high taxed, highest concentration of students with limited English skills) requires a superintendent with a unique set of skills that will allow him/her to provide the formula that will preserve the gains of the past and move the district forward towards the next horizon.

When Dr. Clark-Snead came on board in August 1999, the school district had just ended a two-year debacle with outgoing Superintendent, Dr. Robert Pickney, who had tendered his resignation to the board, effective Aug. 31, 1999. Among the public disgruntlement against him were high taxes and low student performance. The district was also battling the issues of overcrowded classrooms and buildings that were in dire need of repair. As a result a $79 million life and health safety improvements bond was floated in February 2003, which was soundly defeated at the polls. Undeterred, under the leadership of Clark-Snead, a $28 million federally supported interest-free loan – Qualified Zone Academy Bond program (QZAB) – was introduced to the public and put up for a vote on Oct. 16, of that year. This was the only one of its kind in the country at the time and it was approved overwhelmingly.

Other unique, innovative programs were to follow under her watch including the EXCEL AID for high need districts; approved by the voters on Feb. 15, 2007, the ROTC Marine Science Research Program; via grant to the tune of $1 million secured by Congresswoman Caroline McCarthy, and the Magnet Academy Program at the Cradle of Aviation, another first of its kind in the country. While such efforts have amassed praises from community members and her counterpart in other districts, others have taken issue with aspects of her recommendations for allocation of resources and she was never quite able to get the proverbial “monkey off her back” that also plagued her predecessor: high taxes and low student performance.

Her critics often point to Westbury’s academic performance ranking among other school districts, regardless of the contributory factors, and suggest that the real problem has more to do with wasteful spending and the allocation and management of scarce resources.

On the eve of the search for a new superintendent, the district is once again experiencing increased enrollment in its student population. While some districts are experiencing a decline in enrollment (Mineola, Carle Place, Jericho, Merrick, New Hyde Park, et al), resulting in the shuttering of some buildings (Mineola and Lindenhurst for example), Westbury is experiencing the exact opposite, and the need for new school buildings (especially the middle school) is definitely on the agenda. This is the same scenario that existed back in 1999 when Dr. Clark-Snead came to the district. We are now much more experienced with regards to what works and what does not work in this community; the challenge to the new superintendent should be to tell us something we do not know.

Chester McGibbon
Westbury resident