West Lafayette knows replacing school Supt. Rocky Killion no sure bet
‘I'm not going to say we got lucky with Rocky, but …’ After a surprise retirement, West Lafayette recalls recent history as it starts a search for a new school superintendent
When all the accolades were done, as West Lafayette bid farewell to Superintendent Rocky Killion on his final school board meeting Wednesday night, 10 members of the West Lafayette Jr./Sr. High School band made a surprise appearance, marching into the multipurpose room at the intermediate school for a rendition of the school’s fight song.
Killion, a former music teacher before coming to West Side in 2007, clapped along, raising his arms for everyone else in the intermediate school’s multipurpose room to get out of their chairs and join in.
The same room had been considerably quieter – stunned, really – a month earlier, when school board president Alan Karpick read a surprise announcement that Killion decided to retire at the end of June, when his contract was up, and move to Zionsville to be closer to his grandchildren.
What that meant for West Side poured out Wednesday night, as board members, state lawmakers and teachers saluted Killion as a dogged defender of public schools during the rise of private school vouchers in Indiana; an outspoken critic of state-mandated, standardized testing – with a pointed 2013 Peter Coyote-narrated documentary, “Rise Above the Mark,” to punctuate the point; instigator and lead salesman of two tax referendums that passed with overwhelming numbers; and ongoing curator of schools that continued to rank among the best in state and national rankings and publications.
In a crowd not necessarily lost for words, the phrase “big shoes to fill” came early and often during a drawn-out school board meeting.
But on a night of so many pictures – including during an hourlong reception ahead of the board meeting for Killion and three other West Side retirees – the superintendent circled behind the band members and called for someone, anyone, to get his picture. This one, Killion said beaming between two high school trumpet players, was the one he wanted to keep.
“This is what it’s all about, folks” Killion said.
For the West Lafayette Community School Board, the work was just starting.
After appointing Ross Sloat, the district’s chief financial officer and former Benton Community School Corp. superintendent, as interim, the school board hired Administrator Assistance – a company created by a pair of former Lafayette-area superintendents – for $10,000 to help with a search to replace Killion.
Steve Wittenauer, Administrator Assistance co-founder and a former Benton Community superintendent, estimated it would take four months – “conservatively, I’d say” – to have a new superintendent.
Karpick said he hoped that would mean a replacement by the start of the second semester of the 2021-22 school year. As one of two remaining board members, along with Karen Springer, who were in on the search that brought Killion to West Lafayette in 2007, Karpick said he was prepared to settle into a longer process, going deeper into 2022, if necessary, to get the right person and the right fit.
“I'm not going to say we got lucky with Rocky, but it really worked out for West Lafayette schools,” Karpick said. “We know we have a big job to get it right, again."
Killion praised the board for being one that gave him latitude recommend what teachers and schools needed to help kids best – and then found ways to make that happen.
He pleaded for the school community to give the board room to maneuver now.
“What their work is going to be like for the next year is the most important work that they will be doing,” Killion said.
“Please, everyone, please support this school board to get positively involved to help them give them the time, the space and the support that they need,” Killion said. “Because the next leader is going to have many challenges facing him or her, especially with what's going on downstate and continued de-funding of public schools.”
Wittenauer predicted considerable interest in the job, with 40 to 50 applicants for the board to sort, drawn by West Lafayette’s academics and standing. But West Side knows from experience that doesn’t guarantee a good hire.
Consider recent history.
Superintendent Tom Fihe resigned in 1998, after a series of budget shortfalls and layoffs when miscalculations about enrollment projects came back to bite the district – all on the heels of building an addition to the former Burtsfield School, only forced a year later to close it.
Then came Stella Batagiannis, who came from Mishawaka to help repair budgets and realign West Side schools. The district wound up spending more than a quarter-million dollars in court costs and contract issues to get rid of Batagiannis, after parents bristled at her management approach and claims that she helped run out a high school principal.
Iran Floyd, a West Side grad and the son of a West Lafayette superintendent, came out of retirement as a school administrator on an interim basis to steady the district. That interim tag lasted four years, a stint that earned Floyd recognition with his name on the administration building and bought the West Lafayette school board time to find Killion.
“We’re familiar with all of that,” Karpick said after Wednesday’s meeting.
Dacia Mumford, a West Lafayette parent and a school board candidate on a crowded 2020 ballot, pressed the board for details beyond that. Among the questions she asked the board:
As one of the best school districts in the country, will this be a national search, or will candidates only come from within Indiana?
How will teachers be included in the search process?
How will students, parents, staff and other community members be included in the search process?
Will the school board appoint a superintendent hiring committee, or will the hiring committee be the 7 members of the school board?
How many finalists will be invited to come for an in-person interview and meet with teacher, student and parent groups?
What personal qualities, qualifications, skills and experiences will the board prioritize in searching for the new superintendent?
What are the most important challenges facing the school district that the new superintendent will need to be prepared to address?
“I was grateful that Dr. Killion mentioned that this is a huge task that you have this next year,” Mumford told the board. “And grateful that you will take your time and effort to represent our community in this process.”
Wittenauer insisted the search process would be transparent. He said that left room for public input early in the process to go over what the community wants out of the next superintendent. The search will be nationwide. He said the job description and details about how to apply would land on the district’s website, as well as in job posting sites populated by school administrator positions.
Board member Rachel Witt wanted Wittenauer to be clear, though: Public input didn’t mean the public would be in on superintendent candidate interviews. Wittenauer said that was correct – that his firm would feed resumes to the board, which would go through them and conduct initial and final interviews privately.
After the meeting, Mumford said that Wittenauer and the board had explained the process and answered her questions. One thing lingered, though.
“I was surprised that they’re pushing to only have school board members on the hiring committee,” Mumford said. “It is not what they have done in the past.”
(Note: After this initial report, Karpick responded that while the board will conduct the interviews with candidates, as it did 14 years ago, the board has not ruled out having non-board members on a hiring committee. The process is still being worked out. See Karpick’s response in the Comments section.)
The next superintendent likely will need to be ready to navigate another tax referendum in a couple of years. The superintendent will have to take up the student and alumni press for the district to do more on diversity, equity and inclusion in schools.
And the superintendent will have to be ready to be compared, for better or for worse, to Killion and his time in West Lafayette.
Judging from Wednesday night, it’s a search the board would have preferred to put off, if Killion had agreed to stick around.
“We understand the task ahead of us,” Springer said, “and we will put our full attention and time to it.”
Karpick there was a lesson for the board in the past 14 years, applicable in this search.
“I think what makes Rocky unique is that there’s always a sense that you can do better – that you can find another way to do something,” Karpick said.
“I go back to ‘Rise Above the Mark,’” Karpick said. “It’s controversial to some, but I thought it was some of our best work in terms of the community supporting public education. He’s gotten a fair amount of praise and a fair amount of flak. But I think that he’s been willing to stand in there and always champion one very simple sentence: ‘What is best for kids?’”
That was a tune Killion was clapping along to, as well.
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