Superintendent search down to the hire wire

Winters Joint Unified School District office building (Crystal Apilado/Winters Express)

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The search for a new Winters Joint United School District (Winters JUSD) superintendent is almost over. 

Now that the Board of Trustees, Winters JUSD Acting Superintendent Phoebe Girimonte, and Human Resources Director Lisa Dennis diligently followed the direction of national search firm McPherson & Jacobson, LLC consultants, it has come down to some select candidates.

The vacancy opened in June when then-Superintendent Diana Jiménez resigned. Since Girimonte stepped in, she has worked closely with officials, including Board President Carrie Green, who announced after convening privately at the Sept. 8 meeting that officials are down to the hire wire.

“We are coming out of closed session, and the board has reviewed the application packets and will be interviewing candidates for the superintendent position on Friday, Sept. 16,” Green said. 

But before closed sessions were weeks of planning for the final count down, consultants William Huyett and Nicole Anderson conducted over 25 small group meetings with district educational partners, receiving input from approximately 147 group individuals and 26 online respondents.  

Some individuals included members of the English Learning Advisory Committee, District English Learner Advisory Committee, and Winters Combined Parent Teacher Association (PTA). Other members include parents and students; classified, certified, and confidential employees; administrators; city government officials; and bond oversight groups.

“We made sure to touch all of the engagement partners to assure we are getting feedback,” Dennis said.

Survey says
Consultants posed four questions at the meetings, with all answers compiled in a 41-page online document posted on the school district’s website. The document included answers from the digital sThe survey answers varied greatly. 

The first question, “tell us something good about the community,” was answered by parents who said they liked that Winters is a small and bicultural town. Administrative members said Winters deeply cares about kids, is safe, and solves problems at the lowest level possible. PTA members said they like that business is connected to schools and has great food services. 

The third question, “what are the most important local issues a new superintendent should be aware of,” brought up serious community concerns. 

For example, one unnamed community member wanted the new leader to know that Yolo County has one of the highest statewide poverty rates, and a confidential employee said to watch out for the financial impact of a growing community on decreased funding. Up to nine supervisory and confidential employees agreed the new district leader should be aware that “relationships with local newspaper has not been good in the past but getting better.”

But the more critical responses from some unnamed teachers and parents were even more considerable. According to some teachers, the new superintendent should be aware of a litany of issues, including distrust by teachers of district leadership, the broken culture of trust across the district under prior leadership, and the unclear roles of leaders, to name a few. The teachers also said the new leader should be aware of district leadership’s lack of ownership and accountability, micromanagement of the staff, and a paucity of transparent, collaborative conversations.

Parents who answered the same question noted that the special education department is in shambles, and bullying is a problem in middle and high schools. According to some parents, there is also cultural separation among Anglo and Latino communities in the district.

A parent and district employee noted several concerns in the survey, saving the most problematic for the end. 

“My biggest issue as a parent (and staff member) is equity. This has been a main part of our board’s focus for some time. However, I feel like they are only focused on English learners and students multiple grades below where they should be. I DO NOT want to see those students left behind, or to see their services discontinued. However, I would love to see equal opportunity and instruction to students at and above grade level (GATE or something similar),” the survey response stated.

The fourth question, “what characteristics, attributes, and skills should the new superintendent have,” had more agreeable answers with some noting the same qualities including community oriented, transparent leader, student-centered and trustful. 

One answer to the best quality is to be like “Phoebe Girimonte or someone like her,”suggesting approval of  the acting superintendent’s performance in the role.

Speaking of Girimonte, while waiting for answers from the groups, the search firm, acting superintendent, and Trustees narrowed the nearly 150 respondents to 27 candidates, which is “a very good showing for this time of year,” according to Dennis.

Nine candidates have superintendent experience, with most currently serving in the role; six are from out-of-state; 21 have current cabinet level of experience, seven are women, and at least eight are from underrepresented ethnic groups. 

“It was a good decision to hire a search firm,” Board Clerk Joedy Michael said. “I know the staff put in a ton of work to help parallel their work, but I think up to 30 candidates, and six out of state — a pretty diverse group, and I don’t know that we would have been able to do that with just our small team.”

The purpose of discussing the candidates on Sept. 8 was so Trustees could select the ones they wished to interview on Sept. 16. Dennis also released the name of the panelists chosen to help select the new superintendent. The panelists were elected and appointed to serve on Sept. 6. 

The panelists are members of all the noted groups. They include Theresa Borchelt, Misbah Naseer, Kathy Lester, Tracy Murrin, John Barsotti, Phoebe Girimonte, Giselle Del Toro, Sterling Davis, Mary Jo Rodolfa, Claudia Covarrubias, Karla Garcia, Courtney Casavecchia, Tawnya Martin, Jesse Loren and Elizabeth Mora. 

“It really was an all-hands on deck to ensure that we were getting important feedback from our engagement partners,” Dennis said.  

Green agrees, saying, “we did receive the list with names and alternates, and it looks like our wish list has been fulfilled.” 

School business will continue as usual through the search that officially ends with candidate interviews on Sept. 16. The next regularly scheduled Winters JUSD Board of Trustees meeting is Thursday, Sept. 15 at 6 p.m.

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