Union 28 begins search for new school superintendent

Shutesbury Elementary School.

Shutesbury Elementary School. Contributed Photo

By SCOTT MERZBACHand DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writers

Published: 11-12-2023 5:00 PM

SHUTESBURY — A search is underway for a new superintendent to oversee the Erving School Union 28, a district that includes four elementary schools serving preschool through sixth-grade students in Shutesbury, Leverett, Erving, Wendell and New Salem.

With September’s announcement from Superintendent Jennifer Culkeen that she would retire at the end of the school year after completing nine years at the helm, the Union 28 Superintendency Committee this fall has formed a search committee, made up of representatives of the five towns, to undertake a process that includes writing a job description, doing advertising and other associated work to find a successor.

The search committee is being chaired by Steven Blinder, of New Salem, who also chairs the superintendency committee. The search will involve committee members, staff and PTO members from the schools, while the Massachusetts Association of School Committees will provide assistance.

Culkeen’s retirement was discussed at the Shutesbury School Committee’s September meeting.

“Very, very happy for your retirement, but incredibly sad to see you go,” said Bethany Rose, who chairs the Shutesbury panel.

Culkeen told the committee her decision to depart was a “happy-sad” occasion.

“I think Union 28 and the four schools do incredible things, and I would put our schools up against any school in Massachusetts, because I think we do amazing things,” Culkeen said.

Combined, the four elementary schools in the district have an enrollment of around 525 students, based on the most recent state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data.

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Each elementary school operates independently, hiring its own teachers and staff, setting budgets and making decisions related to programs and policies, and each town electing their school committees. The five towns, though, share administrative costs for the central office, including the superintendent and finance chief.

Students at the Shutesbury and Leverett elementary schools continue their secondary education at Amherst-Pelham Regional Middle and High schools, while Swift River Elementary students, from Wendell and New Salem, head to Ralph C. Mahar Regional School in Orange, and Erving Elementary students go to the Gill-Montague School District.

At Wednesday’s search committee meeting, members agreed the new superintendent should have strong interpersonal skills, experience at the elementary school level and an ability to listen to all sides.

Committee member Julie Martell mentioned her ideal candidate’s qualifications include interpersonal skills, experience in elementary education, a thorough understanding of school finance, and the capacity to work within the limits of available resources. She believes the person should also have expertise in curriculum development, implementation and assessment as well as a shared commitment to progressive education.

Blinder received affirmation when he asked if members want a candidate with experience in a rural community.

“There’s so many aspects of working in a rural community that are different,” member Gillian Budine said. “You have a very small staff that supports you, and I think that’s really important to understand.”

She also said she wants someone who is visible, collaborative and supportive.

Mandy Blackbird said the new superintendent should “be visible and present at school events and get to know the demographics of the different schools in the district and understand each school’s uniqueness that makes them who they are.”

Vice Chair Becky Tew said the district needs “somebody who is able to jump into the work that has already been started with social justice and equity.” She also wants someone with experience collaborating with town governments.

Elizabeth Murphy, who mentioned she has a background in college admissions, said the right candidate will have a “spark factor.”

“I think that so many candidates have everything that you would want on paper, but might not have the spark that you need for our district,” she said.

Blinder also said that some people might interview well but not be a proper fit. He said he wanted the committee to meet once more before Thanksgiving and members settled on Nov. 27. He mentioned candidate interviews won’t be conducted until January.

The superintendent search comes as there are questions about the future of Union 28, which was formed in 1901 when Erving, Leverett, New Salem and Wendell voted on the superintendency union. Shutesbury joined the following year.

A number of changes could be explored, including fully regionalizing the four elementary schools or breaking up the union.

Erving recently formed a subcommittee to explore the pros and cons of leaving Union 28. In the past, too, there have been both studies and even votes related to Leverett and Shutesbury becoming fully regionalized with Amherst and Pelham as a preschool through 12th grade district. Most recently, the Regional Agreement Working Group met from 2013 to 2015 to propose that regionalization, but those efforts were abandoned eight years ago.

When Amherst opens a new elementary school in fall 2026, sixth graders from Amherst’s three elementary schools will be going to the middle school for classes, a move that could be complicated by Shutesbury and Leverett and Pelham, because their sixth graders may not join their sixth-grade peers in that building.

Members of the Union 28 Committee, at a meeting in October, suggested that priority should be given to the superintendent search, rather than any changes to the district’s composition.

Beth Erviti, a Wendell representative, said any studies or work should be put on the back burner due to these complications.

Leverett representative Jya Plavin, too, said the priority should be on the superintendent search, observing that people have different understandings about what regionalizing might mean.

Culkeen told the committee that pushing off that sort of work makes sense, as come July 1 a new superintendent is needed, and that a search, and those interested in applying, could be affected if there are ongoing discussions on regionalization. Though she noted that the same scenario was present when she succeeded then-Interim Superintendent Robert Mahler.

“It didn’t dissuade me, but it may dissuade someone else,” Culkeen said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.