Candidates have similar focus and offer varied ideas for district
By Terry Duffy
The process is moving ahead in the Lewiston-Porter Central School District's superintendent search.
Facilitated by Orleans/Niagara BOCES District Superintendent Dr. Clark Godshall, over the past 10 days, Lewiston-Porter has held get-acquainted sessions for its three finalists. Each has met with the Lew-Port Board of Education, district officials, administrators, students and the community.
The finalists, chosen from a list of 10 who applied earlier, include Dr. Donald Wheeler, superintendent of schools at the Bainbridge-Guilford Central School District, Bainbridge, New York; Lew-Port High School Principal Paul Casseri; and Mary Beth Scullion, assistant superintendent of the Tonawanda City School District.
The search committee said all three possess impressive credentials and a strong passion for achieving a quality educational environment for Lewiston-Porter, its students and the community.
Dr. Donald Wheeler
Wheeler, 42, visited with Lew-Port last week. He comes from a 1,000-student rural district outside of Binghamton. It's a district that, in the past, has seen its share of both financial and community challenges. He sees Lew-Port as a district with similar problems, but also one with exceptional educational assets. Despite its fiscal shortfalls, he said Lew-Port remains on the upward path. Wheeler is looking forward to addressing district challenges head-on.
In his entry plan, Wheeler detailed a shared vision on moving forward. This includes:
•Establishing a strong working relationship with the Lew-Port Board of Education.
•Gaining an understanding of the various programs throughout the district and the relative successes and difficulties of each.
•Assessing the internal and external political cultures of the district to better understand the unique goals and functions of the Lewiston-Porter superintendent.
•Identifying and observing the formal and informal operating policies and procedures of the district in order to fully understand performance expectations.
•Examining key district issues and concerns and assessing how they have been handled in the past in order to establish a shared vision for moving forward.
"We need to celebrate the successes of our educational programs with the community (and also make them aware of its fiscal stresses)," Wheeler said.
He aims to "build on Lew-Port's strengths."
"Its instructional staff is so strong," Wheeler said. "I would like to develop teams of leaders (among the district's teaching staff) to develop programming to empower all teachers to take it to a new level."
Addressing Lew-Port's fiscal stress, Wheeler spoke of the success he had in resolving the Bainbridge District's past problems, taking it from one with sizable operating deficits in the $2 million range to one that offers job training programs for its students, avails college credit courses, associate degrees and more from working with the community.
"The key is a strategic plan, working with the community - its assets," he said.
Lewiston-Porter has much to offer, Wheeler asserted.
"Let's have our students leave with something (from this experience); let's give some value to students," he said.
Wheeler sees it as "Completing the circle with students, the community."
Regarding the budget, Wheeler said he prefers "scrubbing the budget to gain, not cut programs. We need to manage the budget effectively; provide opportunities for our students."
He sees his primary task as "connecting the school district with community; taking its feedback; adjusting; adapting."
Wheeler said he very much enjoyed his experience in Lewiston-Porter and, if selected, looks forward to a long-term association.
"I enjoyed the people, the board, and I'm very excited with the community and (the potential of) becoming a part of it," he said. "I could see myself staying there for a long time."
Casseri visited with the district Monday. An educator for 27 years, he has served as principal of Lewiston-Porter High School since 2005. He came from South Park High School in Buffalo.
Casseri spoke of his vision for Lewiston-Porter when he first started. "Taking a good school to great," he said of the high school's focused curriculum on student academic gains. "We say 'Results.' "
In his time here, Lew-Port has seen improvements in its Regents scores and graduation rates, added AP classes, established a successful working educational relationship with China through an international student exchange program and intensified its student support services.
"We have been very proud of this student success," Casseri said.
He noted a focus of his, as superintendent, would be the district's student-school support services.
If chosen, Casseri said he would do a full-scale review of grades pre-K to 8 to better understand curriculum, support service, the stakeholders involved, and where he wants these classes to be in three to five years.
"We really need to hone, focus on our district," he said.
Casseri would seek to improve communication throughout the district's buildings. He discussed ideas on addressing common core and improving special education and spoke on building district strengths.
Moving onto other areas, Casseri said Lew-Port, which has contended with negative budget increases, needs to focus further on sound fiscal management and growth improvement. He cited three areas: constant budget line monitoring, a need to grow the tax levy with minimal impact to taxpayers, and the need to address the statewide GAP elimination formula to allow the district to return to a sound fund balance.
"We need to focus on how to grow the budget," Casseri said.
He added he'd like to see a return of popular district programs that have been either cut or reduced. Mentioned were ROTC, Lew-Port's art and music programs and its athletic offerings.
"These are significant outlets to student life at Lew-Port," Casseri said.
He spoke of his passion for Lew-Port. "I feel I've put in a relationship with this district, its teachers, its student, its parents to move to the next step."
Of his wish to make it long-term, Casseri said his family is looking into moving to Lewiston and added, "I'd love to stay here. If I get the job here, you've got me for the duration."
Mary Beth Scullion
Scullion visited with Lew-Port Wednesday. A veteran educator and administrator with the Tonawanda City School District, Scullion lent her first focus to Lew-Port's fiscal stress, which she called its biggest challenge. She said the district needs to establish a long-range financial plan.
"We need to focus on finances, review line-by-line spending, work with the Board of Education on priorities," Scullion said.
She would look into such areas as additional revenue sources, shared services with other districts, working with BOCES, working with area legislators, community officials and businesses on cost reduction and revenue-gaining measures, and pursuing grant funding opportunities. She mentioned a similar plan in Tonawanda resulted in a $577,000 benefit for the district.
"It allowed us to have more money in our general fund," Scullion said.
Scullion has a background in staff development. She said she would likewise be focused on the district's academic excellence and work to improve on it. Mentioned were establishing a productive relationship with the Board of Education, working with district staff - both administration and instructors - creating bonds with students and their families, and developing relationships with the community.
Scullion said she would seek to promote an atmosphere of "purposeful and meaningful instruction that challenges each learner in an ever-changing humanistic and technological world."
She praised Lew-Port's Chinese program, spoke of the need for greater student accommodation and alignment of testing in common core programs, improving on special education, and maintaining and growing the district's arts, music and technology programs.
Telling visitors she is already developing a love for Lew-Port, has family in the district and is definitely planning a move if selected, Scullion said, "I have a passion for this."
In coming days, the Board of Education will hold additional sessions with the candidates en route to making a final selection for a new superintendent of schools.
The office opens July 1.