By NEIL ZOLOT
MELROSE — It has been a topsy turvy time for the School Committee, which chose someone last week as the city’s next chief educational officer only to see him take a job someplace else. Another finalist for the local post reportedly told the school board he was no longer interested.
As a result, officials decided Monday that they will now search for an interim superintendent of schools.
The School Committee chose Billerica Superintendent Tim Piwowar to succeed Dr. Julie Kukenberger as the Melrose School Department’s next leader at their meeting on Thursday, March 23. The vote was a unanimous 6-0 with member Dorie Withey absent. The decision was subject to successful contract negotiations and the outcome of Piwowar’s application in Westwood for the same position.
Monday night, the School Committee announced that Piwowar had taken the Westwood school superintendent’s post. The per pupil spending in Westwood is over $21,000; in Melrose, it’s $13,671.
After Piwowar decided to take the top educational job in Westwood, the School Committee switched gears and decided to look for an interim superintendent instead. Kukenberger’s contract runs to the last day of June.
In a statement, the School Committee wrote:
“The Melrose Public Schools is currently seeking an interim Superintendent of Schools for the 2023-2024 school year. The Melrose School Committee believes that this is the best path forward for the District and the community at this time.
“Over the past months, the Committee has conducted a substantive process for appointing the next Superintendent of Schools, which involved many community members, staff members, and parents. On Thursday, March 23, the Committee voted to appoint Billerica Superintendent Tim Piwowar pending successful negotiation of a contract. On Monday, March 27, Superintendent Piwowar informed the Committee that he wished to withdraw from the process, graciously sharing that Melrose wasn’t the right fit for him at this time. Mr. Piwowar expressed his gratitude to the community and the Committee for the opportunity. That evening, the Committee met in a special meeting and ultimately decided to move to an interim superintendent appointment process.
“On Tuesday, March 28, the Committee approved a process to post a new job description and authorize Chair Margaret Driscoll to appoint a subcommittee of three Committee members as an initial screening committee. That group will be charged with reviewing application materials and putting forward candidates to be interviewed by the Committee in public sessions.
“The Committee‘s timeline includes posting the interim position on or around March 29 and requesting application materials by April 13. The screening committee will then review materials and announce finalist selections on or around April 19. The Committee hopes to interview candidates on April 26 and 27 with an appointment to follow.
“The Committee’s timeline aligns with the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) estimate of a one-month process. Full Committee meetings will be posted and open to the public. As always, the Committee invites commentary and feedback from the community.”
Piwowar joined Garth McKinney and David Ryan as finalists to succeed Kukenberger. McKinney, currently the interim superintendent in Milton, reportedly said he was no longer interested in the Melrose post after Piwowar decided not to take the job.
All three finalists met community members and were publicly interviewed by the school board last week.
Piwowar said, “I’m at a point in my career I’m looking for different challenges and a community true to my core values,” he said. “My basic core value is we all have a fundamental responsibility to our kids and all means all. No ifs, ands or buts. Knowing what I do about Melrose, it’s an opportunity to come here and do some great work on behalf of kids.”
He cited work on individualized personal learning plans and setting goals as some of the work he’s heard about here and feels “we need to be about learning being aligned with our core values. My skill set is I can build relationships and community support for that. If we don’t live by our core values, what are we doing?”
Piwowar has been Billerica’s superintendent since 2011. He started out as a math and computer programming teacher in 1997 before becoming assistant superintendent for Finance and Operations and, later, Superintendent. He was also president of the state Association of School Superintendents in 2021 and last year. “I love the classroom and still miss the classroom, but when someone told me I might be good as an administrator I realized while I might not have a great impact on one student, the impact I could have on 5,000 would be greater,” he said during his interview with the School Committee Tuesday, March 21.
He also talked about building consensus with the School Committee and community, municipal government and the community at large to build support for the school system, especially in the budgeting process. “The numbers are only as good as the story you tell with them and the story needs to be aligned with core values,” he said. “I might have a preconceived idea about who I’d need to speak to, but there might be others when it comes to providing resources for kids or understanding how growing the tax base will grow resources for students. These are the conversations we need to have. I’m not just a person who sends out memos. There’s a level of visibility that’s important and sets the groundwork for communication. I will take slings and arrows from adults for kids if it’s about supporting kids.”
He also told the School Committee, “I’m only halfway through my career. I have at least ten years left.”
“He clearly loves students and looks like he’s in it for the long haul,” member Jennifer Razi-Thomas said. “We’re definitely looking for someone to help us make the big shifts we need.”
“The next superintendent has to build a relationship with the community,” Mayor Paul Brodeur added. “We need a leader that can build consensus, but will also challenge the community and us as a School Committee. He talked about what he did in Billerica and related it to their Master Plan.”
“He feels very committed to being involved in the community he works in,” member Jen McAndrew feels. “A possible issue was that he spent his entire career in one district, but what negates that is that he’s been a leader among superintendents.”
Member Lizbeth DeSelm liked Piwowar’s comments about how Billerica expanded its in- house Special Education programs to avoid expensive out-of-district placements.
The decision came after the third consecutive night of interviews of the three candidates. Piwowar was interviewed first, Tuesday, March 21. He and the other candidates also spent the earlier part of their interview days visiting schools and meeting administrators, teachers, parents and other people from the community, including a virtual meeting with METCO parents from out of town. McKinney was in the city Wednesday, March 22 and Exeter, New Hampshire area School Administrative Unit Superintendent David Ryan the next day.
Piwowar was also the preferred candidate of resident and school parent Molly Carroll. She said he exhibited “a great mix of data, technique and personality,” was a “clear communicator” and had “strong experience in finance and budgeting. I think we all know it’s something we need,” a reference to recent budget issues encountered during Kukenberger’s tenure.
She also said most of the parents she’s spoken to preferred Piwowar. “The community needs to rally around a leader, but we haven’t had that leader,” she feels.”
School Committee members felt all three finalists were strong candidates. “Choosing a leader for the district has impacts for years to come,” Chair Margaret Raymond Driscoll noted. “At other times any could be a perfect leader but not now. My preferred candidate was able to connect with everyone on a personal level, an important element of communication.”
Mayor Paul Brodeur feels the strong pool of candidates “has shown there are people ready, willing and eager to become part of the leadership team in Melrose.”