Press-Republican

May 7, 2013

Interim administrators keep districts on track

By ASHLEIGH LIVINGSTON and SUZANNE MOORE Press-Republican
Press-Republican

---- — PERU — Dr. Roger Catania’s title at Lake Placid Central School will be “interim superintendent” — he’ll be there for a little more than a year.

“My plan,” he said, “is to operate in no way different than I would if I were going to be there forever.

“That’s the kind of commitment I think I should have.”

Catania takes the top spot at LPCS right after Memorial Day, coming aboard with hopes of rebuilding school and community confidence through give-and-take, open lines of communication.

Along with the kinds of financial challenges faced by school districts around New York state, Lake Placid Central has struggled over personnel issues that led to a pervasive lack of confidence in present Superintendent Randy Richards.

The School Board did not renew his contract.

Catania says it’s time to quit looking “in the rear-view mirror and just look forward.”

WHY AN INTERIM?

It is not unusual for a school district to bring an interim superintendent aboard.

In September 2011, new Peru Central School Superintendent Dr. Thomas Stapleford left unexpectedly due to health reasons, and the School Board asked recently retired Superintendent A. Paul Scott to fill in during the search for another administrator.

Interims, Scott said, can be a good solution for districts dealing with an unanticipated vacancy because they allow the school to establish a suitable process for recruiting a quality successor.

That, he said, commonly takes up to five or six months.

“It sets the stage for the board to then start the process of recruiting a next superintendent,” he said.

During this time, he noted, the purpose of an interim is to help the organization move forward with its daily business as it prepares for the arrival of a long-term leader.

A temporary person at the helm, he said, can keep the district on its current path and attain certain goals, such as planning the following year’s budget, until a successor can be put in place.

An interim may also be sought in a situation where the board and superintendent have come to the conclusion that they aren’t a good fit for each other, Scott said. In such a case, the interim may be asked to help the district overcome its current challenges or provide a new perspective on the district’s strengths and weaknesses.

BRIDGING GAPS

At times, a district may ask an interim to serve longer.

For example, Scott said, if the school is anticipating a series of trying budget seasons, it may wish to keep a highly experienced interim on board for a year or longer instead of rushing to recruit a new, permanent leader during difficult financial times.

Gerald Blair signed on at Chazy Central Rural School as interim some years back; he was actually hired full time after the School Board found his efforts an asset to the district.

Blair had served as superintendent at Lake Placid Central for 15 years before he retired in 1997.

“I’ve been to eight schools since then, for one year or more, and I try to help out, get schools through budgets and bond issues,” he said. “Then I go on to another job.”

Presently, as he marks 50 years in education, he holds the temporary post at Northeastern Clinton Central School in Champlain.

INTERIM PAY

Scott noted that the pool of interim superintendents predominately comprises experienced district leaders who have retired from active service.

He added that, in most cases, such people don’t go looking to take the job, but rather districts come looking for them.

Interim pay, which is negotiated between the board and the individual, is typically on a per-diem basis, according to Scott, and depends on the length of the appointment, the size of the district and the duties the interim is expected to carry out.

“The rate can vary,” he said.

During his time as interim superintendent at Peru Central, Scott received $550 per day.

From July to November 2012, he filled the post at Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School, following the retirement of Gail Else.

There, he was compensated $450 per day.

“My position is much different than the normal person who would be in the job,” Blair said. “I’m a per-diem, interim superintendent.

“An interim has no benefits. For the district’s sake, they don’t pay any health insurance on me, and they don’t pay any retirement on me.”

MOST PER DIEM

Unlike active-duty superintendents, Scott noted, the compensation for those filling in does not include health-insurance or retirement benefits. In addition, the temps do not receive other long-term provisions of employment, such as sick days and vacation time.

“There’s generally no other compensation,” he said. “It’s whatever the per-diem rate is.

“It’s almost always less expensive to have an interim superintendent in place.”

Catania’s situation is somewhat different.

His contract with LPCS was initially for a year, starting July 1. When Richards opted to end his time in the office later this month, making use of sick and vacation time, the district asked Catania to come aboard sooner.

His pay will be $115,000.

MATTER OF BALANCE

Scott was right at home returning to Peru Central as interim, but many temporary leaders, he noted, take charge at districts that are new to them.

“It’s certainly always a challenge to enter an organization where you might be the first change that’s happened in a while,” he said.

It’s important, he noted, for an interim to listen to and engage with the school community and be well aware of the district’s short-term priorities.

However, Scott added, that person must also keep in mind that everyone else in the district will remain long after the temporary leader is gone.

“One strives to balance attending to shorter-term things with attending to longer-term things,” he said.

‘STRONG CONNECTIONS’

Catania knows LPCS well from a perspective different from that of superintendent, but he expects that knowledge to prove very helpful.

He came to the district in 1997 as counselor in the Middle/High School and worked there for more than a decade before leaving to earn a doctorate in foundations of education, a course of study that looks at how schools and communities interact.

“I think it’s an incredibly valuable lens through which to look,” he said, in his position shepherding the district forward.

He begins the superintendency on a transitional license and next month will begin the remaining coursework he needs for an administration doctorate.

There’s a steep learning curve when an interim comes from the outside, Catania agreed.

For him, his familiarity with the district’s issues mean he “won’t start from scratch.”

And he knows the people, too.

“I have good, strong connections with families, teachers, community members and, in some cases, students.”

The learning curve that will challenge him more will be that of the superintendency itself, since this will be his first experience.

“I’m realistic,” he said. “I won’t know everything when I walk through the door. And I’m going to be cautious about some things (he knows less about) — listen harder.

Bottom line, there will be tough decisions, difficult issues to sort out, Catania said.

It will come down to communication, he said.

“In a big way.”

— Staff Writer Kim Smith Dedam contributed to this report.