News

March 3, 2001

Residents got an up-close and in-person look at prospective Brandywine School District superintendent Bruce Harter on Mar. 2 and, on balance, seemed to come away favorably impressed. The decision on whether to hire him, however, is still a few giant steps removed.

"He hit all the marks of core competency [and] he has a grasp of the important educational issues. One of the things I'm not sure about is whether he puts [too much emphasis] on teaching to [state educational] standards," said one of 22 parents who gathered for a 'debriefing' by school board vice president Janice Tunell after hearing a presentation by Harter and listening to him field about a dozen fairly specific questions.

Another participant in the reaction event noted that Harter gave a thorough and technologically astute talk and provided reasoned spontaneous answers to the questions, which presumably had not 

been pre-arranged. That person described Harter's demeanor as serious and professional if a bit short on personality. But, then, he added that the search for a superintendent "should not be a personality contest."

"We cannot afford not to have a superintendent who is going to take us to great heights," said yet another.

Tunell told the group that the process will involve further interviews, a trip by a delegation of school board members, teachers and others to Fort Myers, Fla., where Harter is superintendent of the Lake County School District. She said also that board members have divided up the chore of telephoning the more than 100 references that Harter provided. Those are about evenly split between Floridians and residents of Corvallis, Ore., where he previously was superintendent.

Tunell also revealed that the Brandywine board has

Bruce Harter talks with Brandywine school board president Nancy Doorey after his public presentation.

decided to offer the new superintendent an initial three-year contract. She did not specify a salary, but the board previously authorized its executive search consultant to talk in the range of $125,000 a year.

Harter is the only active candidate at present and one of only two applicants who met the criteria of having a successful multiple-year superintendency on his or her resume. Board president Nancy Doorey previously said that, if Harter is not hired, the search process will be resumed "on an expedited basis" with the expectation that a new superintendent still could be on board by July 1, the official start of the new fiscal and academic year.

Harter also reportedly is one of two finalists in a search for a superintendent for the Moline, Ill, district. He participated in a similar meet-the-public session there on Feb. 19.  Minutes posted on the district's Web site, however, gave no details about what was said. There was to have been a special meeting of the Moline board on Mar. 2, reportedly to decide between the candidates, but a notice on the Web site said that Brian McCaulley, president of the Moline board, had cancelled that session. No reason nor other elaboration was given.

Doorey said that Herter has strongly indicated that Brandywine is his first choice because he feels he would have a much grater chance to make an impact here.

Although the Brandywine public meeting came at the end of a long day of private sessions with teachers, administrators, community organization leaders, business people, politicians and the like, Harter did not seem tired and handled the situation in a cool calm manner.  His presentation was delivered in a tone reminiscent of a keynote address.

His wife, Lee Anna, accompanied Harter on what was his second Delaware. He previously had appeared before a selection committee of community and business residents which, Doorey said, gave him an "unanimous and enthusiastic endorsement."

Harter's talk on how he things state and local academic standards should be applied was built around a Power Point presentation he had prepared. It included data extracted from the Brandywine district Web site and even digital photographs he had taken earlier during a tour of some Brandywine schools. He used the projected computer material even though there were deficiencies in its formatting -- an element that actually contributed to its effectiveness.

The 73 attenders at the meeting were given a 48-page document produced by the school board and labeled as "excerpts from [his] application materials."

Picking up on the personality and ability-to-relate issue, a woman at the 'debriefing' said that Harter probably would take a while to establish rapport with the community. "You have a much better chance to pass the referendum (sic) with the interim superintendent than with him," she said. The district is expected to seek voter authorization to sell bonds to finance school renovation this spring -- before Harter would take office on July 1 -- but may put off until the 2001-02 school year a vote on increasing its tax rate for operations. Victoria Gehrt is interim superintendent.

Tunell set as the basic ground rule for the session with parents that remarks would not be recorded or publicly attributed by name. There were similar sessions held after the general meeting for teaches, students and residents who are not parents of students in Brandywine schools.

With similar annonymonity, questioners at the general meeting hit on most of the key issues on the public mind.

One, who did identify himself as Randy Bechler, a teacher at Talley Middle School, drew applause when he asked Harter how he would avoid what Bechler described as "anti-Brandywine" media coverage, particularly by the News Journal newspaper. Harter replied that his policy is to cooperate with the media but not rely on it. "It's very important to build relationships [with media representatives] ... [but] I don't believe any district should rely on a newspaper for its public relations."

He noted that, during a controversy last year over fire alarms in the district where he currently is superintendent, the Fort Myers newspaper had a series of front-page accounts about the issue and pointedly added that, like the News Journal, it is a -part of the Gannett chain.

"About 90% of what the community believes comes [from] our own speaking -- by parents and teachers," he said. He also advocated the use of internal newsletters "to spread the word about our successes." 

Perhaps coincidently, Brandywine's media-relations efforts might have been unveiled at the session, which was hosted by Nancy Karibjanian, anchor woman on the 'Delaware Tonight' news program broadcast television station WHYY. It is considered unusual in the profession for a news person to take on such a role  in an event directly related to a major public issue and especially one involving or potentially involving controversy.

While introducing Harter, Karibjanian said his addressing the public face-to-face -- albeit a minute portion of the Brandywine School District population -- "takes my business out of the process." She added that she is "happy to know this (selection of a superintendent) is a decision that is coming from within the district."

"He has the expertise we all know about; now he's going to tell us how his experience can fit with the Brandywine School District," she said.

Harter also stepped briefly into media relations when he chastised Monique Brunsberg, a News Journal photographer for repeatedly taking electronic flash photographs during his presentation. She complied immediately with his order to stop.

During the parent reaction sessions, one participant said approvingly, "That shows he's not going to take any guff." 

Pertinent points that Harter made during his talk and the question-and-answer session:

  • On academic standards -- State standards "aren't specific enough to show up in the classroom." It is necessary not only to adopt local standards but also to see to it that "they are visible in the classroom" and understood by students and parents. "Teachers should teach to the standards and other teachers should evaluate them."

  • On testing -- "Once a year testing isn't sufficient. ... People think that the state test is the only assessment [of student performance]; teachers have to make assessments every day." 

  • On local control -- "If schools are going to be held accountable, we have to give them discretionary authority to put their programs together and make them work."

  • On expanding Brandywine's 'gifted'-student program -- "I favor designing programs so that every student is challenged; the last thing I want to hear is that any child is unchallenged."  Specifically,  he would be willing to consider a self-contained 'gifted' program for middle- and high school students. "But I am reluctant to say that is the only way."

  • On reading -- "We should set a goal that every child is reading [at grade level] by the end of the third grade and do whatever is necessary to reach it."

  • On class size -- "It really depends on students in the class and the subject matter taught. We don't have enough money or school space to have every class the size that teachers would like."

  • On parental involvement -- "We have to make a concerted effort to make parents want to come in and to give them [volunteer] work that is meaningful when they do." He added that it is necessary to overcome reluctance to participate by parents who had unpleasant or unsuccessful experiences  with school when they were young.

  • On budget cuts -- "We have to work hard to make sure there is an adequate level of funding." In the event cuts have to be made, "schools should be empowered to give maximum benefits to students with the resources they have [available to them] and then [we should] support them in what they decide." Specifically, if Brandywine should not secure a higher ceiling on operating tax in the anticipated referendum, cutbacks should be individualized by school. "A bludgeon approach is one that never works."

  • On 'alternative' schools -- "'Alternative education' programs are essential. ... They should be [staffed with] teachers willing to work with them (students) around the challenges they have in their lives rather than beat them down."

Harter said that a major goal if he comes to Brandywine will be to significantly close the 'achievement gap' between African-American and Caucasian students. He said that his initial analysis of Delaware state testing results indicates that Brandywine has made progress in narrowing it at the third-grade level but has much to accomplish, particularly at the high school level.

He noted that, in the early 1990s, much of the blame for the United States's sagging economy vis--vis Japan and other nations was placed on failure of teachers and the education system to keep pace. Later in the decade, when the situation was reversed "I didn't hear anyone come forward and blame the booming economy on educators," he quipped.

2001. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous story: Brandywine zeroes in on a superintendent
Go to the Brandywne School District Web site.
Go to the Lee County (Fla.) School District Web site.

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