Choices to lead our schools
Mesa County gets first look at applicants for superintendent
Four finalists for superintendent of School District 51 were announced Thursday after school board members spent nearly nine hours interviewing six candidates.
The finalists are Ken Haptonstall, superintendent of Garfield County School District 16; Carrie Stephenson, director of schools at the Douglas County School District; Phil Onofrio, District 51’s chief operating officer; and John Williams, president of the District 51 school board.
Two candidates were interviewed by the school board but were not selected as finalists. They are James Feil, a former Michigan school district superintendent, and Pamela Brown, chief of elementary schools at a California school district.
The six candidates were interviewed via webcam and answered questions for nearly an hour each about topics ranging from performance-based learning to financial campaigns.
School board members Tom Parrish, Greg Mikolai, Doug Levinson and Paul Pitton spent one and a half hours in an executive session with Colleen Martin, the district’s director of human resources, and Rebecca Midles, executive director of performance-based systems, before they returned to the open meeting and announced the four finalists.
Parrish said it was a difficult decision to narrow the candidate field.
“When you get into personnel decisions, they are always tough decisions, and when you get into superintendent of a school district, that’s a really tough decision, because you’re going to impact 22,000 students and their families,” Parrish said. “You’re going to impact the community because public schools are an economic driver and they can help pull our valley and our community out of the economic doldrums if we get this right.”
Pitton said all of the candidates shared the same commitment to education.
“All of them have a passion for kids, and that’s what we’re looking for, as well as someone who has the management skills and can help us get off of the floor financially and take care of the kids better,” he said.
All four finalists have some kind of connection to Grand Junction, School District 51 or the Western Slope.
Haptonstall is a former District 51 teacher and administrator. He has overseen the four schools of Garfield County School District 16 for nine years.
Haptonstall talked about his previous experience in District 51 as well as his success at passing a bond measure and experience with severe budget cuts during his time in Garfield County.
“I’m excited about this opportunity and I’m excited about where you are (as a district),” Haptonstall said. “It’s not going to take me a ton of time to get to know folks because I already do know folks, so I’m going to be able to hit the ground running.”
Stephenson, who grew up in Montrose, told board members that she was drawn to District 51’s approach to performance-based learning.
“I want to make it clear that I’m applying because of what District 51 is doing,” she said. “I’m thrilled with the instructional direction you’re heading in and thrilled that the Board of Education supports that.”
Onofrio, who started as District 51’s chief operating officer in 2013, told board members he is uniquely qualified for the job because of his experience in both the public sector as an administrator in three school districts as well as 10 years of business experience running his family’s music company.
“It’s not a career goal for me, it’s a personal challenge to make the world better for kids,” he said. “It’s not something I want to do so I can put it on my resume, it’s not an ego thing that I really want to be the superintendent. I really want to help these kids get what they need so they can be successful.”
Williams told board members about his experience as a lawyer, overseeing Gateway Canyons Resort, and his previous involvement in supporting ballot measures to further fund District 51.
Williams has recused himself from the superintendent search process but remains on the school board.
“I have a passion for public education and I think too much of this country has given up on it,” Williams said. “I think people trust me. I think there is some distrust of the district in the community, and I think the trust the public has in me, and I think that teachers and principals have in me, will be an asset.”
In April, finalists will tour the school district, meet with the school board and be interviewed by groups of community members, business leaders and school district staff. Those groups will provide feedback to the school board about each candidate before board members make a final decision.
The board will invite a team of community members, students, parents, staff members, and local leaders to join them April 10-11 to interview the finalists in person in Grand Junction. The board would like to make its final selection on or before May 1, 2017.