Fast-track search leads to unanimous vote for new Lenox schools chief

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LENOX — The vote was unanimous as the Lenox School Committee ended its fast-track superintendent search Wednesday night by offering the position to Kimberly Merrick, director of special education and special services at the five-town, 7,300-student Wachusett Regional School District based in Holden, near Worcester.

A majority of the committee members, praising Merrick's performance during her job interview the previous evening, also cited accolades from her references, who were contacted Wednesday.

She accepted the position late Thursday with an official start date of July 9, School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan told The Eagle. "She was very excited to receive the offer," he said.

Several members acknowledged that all three finalists were strong candidates, and there was support from two for Tara Brandt, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) supervisor in the Westfield Public School District, and from one member for Rhonda Cohen, former director of teaching and learning in the Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools.

But when the formal vote was tallied, all seven members chose Merrick.

With the successful completion of contract negotiations, she will be paid $130,000 for a one-year appointment as superintendent, with the option to extend the contract if she and the School Committee agree that her job performance merits a three-year stint.

"The one-year contract could become permanent at any time," Vaughan advised the members.

The vacancy in the 780-student Lenox district developed when Superintendent Timothy Lee announced in early April that he would step down June 30 after four years in the post — the first seven months as interim superintendent — and six previous years as principal at Morris Elementary. He has been appointed principal at Muddy Brook Elementary School in Great Barrington.

Merrick will do some transitional work with Lee before her formal start date, Vaughan said.

Vaughan and two other members of the School Committee, augmented by 10 administrators, teachers and parents, expedited the search, culling eight semifinalists from 20 applicants. Three finalists made the final cut.

"I was consistently impressed with Kimberly Merrick," committee member Robert Munch said of his top choice. "She was extremely intelligent, very well-spoken and I thought her measured, thoughtful way would be very compatible with our district."

"She demonstrated a real openness to change and seemed like a very flexible person, which would be an asset," added Christine Mauro.

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After canvassing several of Merrick's references, committee member David Rimmler reported that she was extolled as "a very strong child advocate, very even-tempered, her leadership is collaborative, professional, transparent, she's a good communicator, and she doesn't make the same mistake twice. She's very easy to work with, doesn't have an edge and builds consensus by group. She's very confident, a very hard worker and steeped in the challenges of inclusion."

During her public interview at Town Hall on Tuesday, Merrick said that "I find it very, very important to be visible in a school. That goes a long way to making staff feel comfortable, supported and that they're important. If you can be in a building and nip problems in the bud, face-to-face, the likelihood of situations bubbling out of control is much less."

Merrick also explained that she was enticed to apply to Lenox because "not only is your reputation excellent, but I could be visible in two buildings, and still be superintendent. It's very important for me to know how the kids are doing and give my advice, like `I'm not so sure that's the best road map for that child, because I know who the child is.'"

Asked how she would promote and retain the district's strong academic performance, she said "students having to take ownership of where they are and where they would like to be is really helpful for a high-performing district."

In response to a question, Merrick told the committee that she is most proud of creating an after-school sports program leading to an annual Special Olympics event for the Wachusett district, with 150 students and 120 volunteers participating.

"It's probably one of the biggest events that occurs at Wachusett in the year," she pointed out. "I get chills talking about it, because it's been one of the best, most exciting, real things I've done in my career."

Answering a question about expanding vocational education opportunities, Merrick said she was very impressed by the woodworking shop at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, and hoped a way could be found to expand it.

"We should be preparing students not only for college, but for career readiness," she said.

Asked how she should be evaluated as a superintendent, Merrick suggested that, on budgetary issues, her relationship with the district's business administrator, Hank Maimin, would be significant, as well as community engagement, "my favorite thing in the world. I would expect you would survey the staff and they'd let you know whether they like me or they don't like me. Either I can improve or you can tell me I'm not doing a very good job."

"Being the district that you are, I would expect that you would have very high expectations and I would certainly have high expectations, as I always have for myself," she added.

Merrick defined the roles of the School Committee as evaluating her, approving the budget and signing off on policies. Beyond that, she told the members that "I would expect that anything I'm doing that might cause some kind of ruffle in the community, I would communicate all that to you to get your suggestions, feedback, thoughts and insights, because you live here and this is your community."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_Cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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