Focus group results reveal wish list for school superintendent

Oak Harbor residents want a superintendent who can navigate a divided climate with integrity.

Oak Harbor school district residents who participated in focus groups said they want a superintendent who has prior educational experience, understands the city’s military heritage and can navigate a divided political climate with transparency and integrity.

Consultants from Northwest Leadership Associates, the firm that hosted the focus groups, reported the results to the Oak Harbor school board Nov. 8. Soliciting community feedback is only the beginning of the search process, which is projected to conclude at the beginning of March 2022.

The school board appointed Karst Brandsma as interim superintendent in May, shortly after former Superintendent Lance Gibbon left for a new job in the Snoqualmie Valley school district. Brandsma’s contract began July 1 and is slated to end on June 30 of next year, by which time the board intends to have a new superintendent ready to take over.

In this initial phase of the search process, the firm moderated 22 focus groups for different school stakeholders Nov. 3 and 4, including teachers, students, administrators and parents and other community members. The focus groups gave participants the chance to explain the district’s strengths and struggles and delineate what they would like to see in a superintendent.

Common threads among the 102 total participants included hopes that the new superintendent will be communicative, transparent and involved in the larger community.

For participants, it’s all about the new hire “being visible, being involved, interacting with schools, being at activities and just being out there in the community — being the person that when people see them in your community, they know that person is your superintendent,” said consultant Mark Venn.

Many participants identified widespread frustration and division as one of the most significant problems facing the city. In this climate, a superintendent who has a proven track record in education and leadership, can sustain partnerships with the Navy base and city and listens to staff, students and parents is a must-have, the focus groups concluded.

Concerns about COVID-19 safety were also nearly ubiquitous among focus group participants. Though community members said they’ve been impressed by the district’s COVID response thus far, they also recognize the challenge the pandemic would present to a new leader in the district.

“The first attribute is somebody who understands the challenges and the re-entry from COVID and having a plan to continue to move the district forward coming out of COVID,” Venn said.

Likewise, while participants acknowledged the success the district has had in assisting and supporting military families and students, they said the community’s relationship with the military also presents unique challenges that the new superintendent will need to be equipped to navigate.

“Whoever comes in as superintendent better know that, better know and have a good grasp of the military role and the impact on your district — positive in most ways — but would know how to manage that,” Venn said.

Community members who were unable to join in the focus groups can still submit their thoughts to the school board via an online survey on the district website. They can also listen to candidate interviews, which will take place in February.

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