N-S District appoints Interim Assistant Superintendent

Last Thursday, the combined school committees appointed an interim Assistant Superintendent for Northborough and Southborough Schools. Rhoda Webb, the district’s Director of English Language Education since 2004, is being promoted – at least temporarily.

Superintendent Christine Johnson pitched Webb’s promotion as “a gap measure”. Some school members expressed concern. Ultimately, the committees approved the hire after Johnson positioned it as the only viable option.

A search for a permanent hire was conducted in February (yielding two finalists) and in April (yielding one). It appears that none of the candidates were considered strong enough to recommend for hire. 

With Assistant Superintendent Greg Martineau about to move up to replace the retiring Superintendent, Johnson advocated an interim hire to give him the support he’ll need. Webb was the one internal candidate that Martineau and Johnson recommended for the role. Both stressed the important value of Webb’s internal institutional knowledge.

Johnson told the committees that with a new hire “getting to know this district is a year plus process”. Both pushed that promoting Webb allows them to keep positive momentum on the administration’s initiatives.

Whether to extend the interim role or launch a new search will be decide next year by the committees and Martineau. Johnson assured that Webb won’t lose her current job if the new one doesn’t work out. She said that the district has always encouraged growth by allowing staff to take a leave to try something new. They would seek someone else to move up to Webb’s job temporarily.

Still some members of the school committees were initially wary. There appeared to be an underlying assumption that Webb would only lose the job if she failed at it. Meanwhile, as stated by Southborough’s Paul Butka, the Assistant Super job has been used as a training position for the higher role. (The previous two superintendents were promoted from Assistant Superintendent without expanding to an internal search.)

Butka raised concerns that Webb may not be qualified to be the next in line. He described the job as an extraordinarily complicated administrative position with many direct reports and millions of dollars in the budget. He said that she appeared to have never overseen a large staff.

Given that the job is an interim one, Johnson said that may be looking too far ahead. Martineau shared that Webb has been a key member of the administrative team at the table when decisions are being discussed. Both expressed confidence in Webb’s capabilities and growth capacity. 

Prior to comments, Martineau made a case for Webb’s qualifications for the role. His praise included calling her a tireless advocate for students, extremely dedicated professional, expert in curriculum development, and collaborative and inclusive leader. He also spoke about her work with all 10 schools’ principals and teachers, plus in depth understanding of the curriculum.

Southborough’s Roger Challen  and Northborough’s Kelly Guenette served on the search committee. They indicated that confidentiality prevented them from sharing the committee’s take at the public session. 

Challen of the Southborough Committee said Butka wasn’t alone in his concerns. He focused on the weakness down the line caused by moving up someone excellent in her current job. Martineau assured that she has mentored her staff. He expects a “cadre” of potential competitors for her job who could each be an all star.

Southborough’s Paul Desmond asked Martineau how he planned to evaluate whether Webb is successful in the role. He replied that the existing rubric for the top two jobs set clear expectations and standards to measure by.

Northborough’s Keith Lebel expressed confidence in Webb. As a speech pathologist, he noted that UMASS Boston, where she earned her Masters in Arts and Applied Linguistics, has one of the top linguistics program in world.

Southborough’s Lynn White followed up on Challen’s comments. Referring to other staff who have moved up, she asked how the administration felt about the strength of “layers below”. Martineau previewed that the Executive Session to follow that night would cover his ideas on how to make sure there is “structure” to support success.

Guenette asked what would happen if the committees rejected the recommended promotion. Martineau said that they would have to start a new search. Johnson clarified that they would need to pursue another interim candidate given the timing. And it would need to be an external one since they had exhausted the internal candidates. That would set the administration back when Martineau needs support in his new role.

Southborough’s Dan Kolenda of the Regional Committee had already expressed support for backing the recommendation. He remarked that of everyone in the room, Johnson and Martineau would know Webb’s capabilities best. And he advocated for providing Martineau the support he would need with someone he’d feel comfortable confiding in.

Following Johnson’s explanation of the alternative choice, Kolenda moved to approve the interim hire. Guenette was the only holdout.

After the vote, Webb was given an opportunity to come in and thank the committees. She told them she was thrilled and considered her job the next step. She told the committee that she has high expectations for herself, as well as those around her and the students.

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