Riff Raff: The big ask

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,045 views 

It was a sudden and surprising move, if not a perplexing pick that remains an enigma despite an explanation from the Fort Smith Public School Board president.

Deputy Superintendent Dr. Terry Morawski was within hours hired as superintendent by the school board after the Nov. 10 announced resignation of Superintendent Dr. Doug Brubaker. Brubaker, who began in January 2017 with the district, accepted the superintendent job with the Texarkana, Texas, Public School District – an odd move in that the Texas district is considerably smaller (more than 40% fewer students, for example) than the Fort Smith district.

It was a unanimous vote among the seven school board members to hire Morawski.

It was a unanimous vote that asks the public to believe Morawski is the best choice among any other experienced education leaders in the country who might have emerged from a search. That’s a big ask, especially considering that Morawski’s qualifications and experience are fewer than those of Brubaker and other finalists when Brubaker was hired.

Let’s note that the job is bigger than just a title. A Fort Smith Public School superintendent is tasked to manage a heavily regulated enterprise with more than 14,000 students, more than 2,000 employees, revenue of more than $140 million, with its own police department and produces about 1,000 graduates a year. And we in recent years have been told by our business, community and elected leaders that the quality of our educational institutions is vital in creating a community attractive to entrepreneurs and a talented workforce.

An informal survey of Fort Smith area business and organizational leaders found none who understand or approve of Morawski’s hiring. Almost all noted that Morawski could have been given the interim title – especially as the district works to conclude an aggressive millage construction program – while then engaging a nationwide search. As one person noted: “On the surface, this fails the smell test on being a best practice.”

Fort Smith Public School Board President Bill Hanesworth disagrees, noting in a response to questions about the decision: “As our school district evolves to its next growth stage, I truly believe Dr. Morawski is the right person at the right time to lead Fort Smith Schools to the next plateau.”

Following is the remainder of the response from Hanesworth to my question about Morawski’s hiring.
“When Dr. Gooden retired, the Board launched a process to recruit a new superintendent. That process lasted for almost a year and spent thousands of dollars in that process to find and hire Dr. Brubaker. That decision resulted in a metamorphosis for the district and community in terms of our school system. I am very proud of what Dr. Brubaker and his team have accomplished.

“Through that process It became apparent to our board we needed to have a succession plan in place for our superintendents. As a result, one of the board’s charges to Dr. Brubaker was to build a leadership succession plan. I feel Dr. Terry Morawski, who has served the district for the last two years as the Deputy Superintendent, was the right choice to continue the projects and initiatives put in place by Dr. Brubaker. Dr. Morawski has led multiple efforts in the district, including leadership of the Vision 2023 Strategic Plan and the 2018 Capital Improvement Program process and other key projects. As a result of Dr. Morawski’s close involvement in so many district activities the board after much discussion on our options came back to Dr Morawski. We agreed he could provide a seamless transfer of leadership and there was no need for a timely and costly search.

“In consideration and looking forward to the future needs of the district after Covid and the Vision 2023/2018 Capital projects have been completed, I think consensus would say we need to shift our focus towards more operational activities, academic achievement, and staff development goals. Dr. Morawski has shared some goals with us for the future, including: a process to standardize the District’s curriculum; a refreshed Strategic Planning process focused on academic programs; continued emphasis on efficiency of district operations including online/paperless processes; increasing community outreach; and identifying and optimizing revenue streams including grants, sponsorships, and energy savings.”

The bottom line is that we The Public must trust the unanimous decision by the school board – even though by Hanesworth’s own admission the work to conduct a broad search after Dr. Gooden’s departure resulted in “a metamorphosis for the district and community in terms of our school system.”

We have to trust that all seven school board members see in the new superintendent intrinsic qualities that far exceed what we The Public may read in his resume or have witnessed during his short tenure with the district.

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