HARVARD — On Saturday morning, the Harvard School Committee offered Joseph Connelly a one-year interim school superintendent position for the coming school year. Later that morning, Connelly accepted. The Reading resident is currently concluding his present 1-year role in Gloucester as that city’s interim school superintendent.
Gloucester has five school buildings housing 3,200 students in grades pre-K through 12. Harvard has less than half the headcount — 1,264 students — at two buildings..
The committee formed a clear consensus for Connelly on a 4-0 vote, with one abstention. By noon, Chairman Keith Cheveralls confirmed that Connelly accepted the job. Exact contract terms and compensation are still to be determined. Connelly starts July 1 and replaces Thomas Jefferson, who leaves at year’s end to become the superintendent of schools in Lynnfield.
Connelly’s resume is storied, with professional experience dating back to 1967 when he started his educational career in Wilmington as an elementary and middle school math and science teacher. Connelly remained in Wilmington for 19 years, leaving after serving a year as the district’s acting business manager.
Connelly moved on to serve a dozen years as superintendent of the Tri-Town School Union comprised of Topsfield, Boxford and Middleton students. Connelly served nine years as Stoneham school superintendent until he retired in 2007.
It was the same year his wife and mother of their 5 grown children retired as a special education teacher. The couple also has several grandchildren.
But in 2007, Connelly’s second life as a professional “interim” began.
Connelly was drawn back to service as a one-year interim of schools for the Berlin-Boylston Regional School District, took a one-year turn as Berlin’s interim town administrator, contracted for a year and a half as an interim principal in Brookline, and is currently serving out the remaining months as Gloucester’s interim superintendent.
Connelly Tuesday toured the schools, meeting students, staff and principals before fielding community questions during a public finalist interview. “Given an opportunity, I think there’s chemistry here. I’d be very comfortable.”
“My role is not to come in here and tread water for a year. To be a successful interim superintendent, you have to approach the job as if you’re a permanent person,” said Connelly. “You don’t want that to be a year where there’s no growth or improvement.”
Last week, Connelly interviewed publicly first. Ayer interim Superintendent George Frost of Lowell interviewed on Wednesday. Former Littleton School Superintendent Diane Bemis of Natick interviewed on Thursday.
Cheveralls noted that Bemis informed him the night before that, since she retired from Littleton in September, she may not be eligible to both collect her pension and collect a salary from Harvard. At her interview, Bemis explained that she retired from Littleton to care for her husband Robert’s faltering health. Her husband is partially paralyzed due to a stroke suffered eight years ago. But since that time his health has stabilized and their daughter Charlene is home to provide assistance that allows Bemis to return to the workforce.
The legal implications of the news were not entirely clear to the committee. The group believed that their finalists were otherwise available, under special state-approved circumstances, to return to work and earn a sum above their pensions.
“Because I have not thought that through, it is not going to be a factor,” said committee member Piali De who said she felt comfortable moving ahead with a selection despite the uncertainty over Bemis. “I’m still going to decide on who we most need for our system next year and leave it at that … I just want to be honest about it.”
Outgoing committee member Virginia Justicz abstained from voting, stating discomfort about the Bemis’ retirement issue. “I’m not sure how vetted that is,” she said, though Cheveralls said the committee’s search process was reviewed both by legal counsel and Glen Koocher, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
Though she did not vote in the end, Justicz did state a personal preference for Frost. “I liked his pragmatism. He brought an incredible diversity of experiences … and just the herculean task he’s done.” Frost leaves Ayer on June 30 after four years on the job as interim superintendent through a series of state critical-need waivers as the town moved to regionalize with Shirley. The Ayer Shirley Regional School District goes on line July 1.
Committee members Piali De, Patty Wenger and Kirsten Wright favored Connelly, as did Devens representative Maureen Babcock. Babcock said the whole critical-need waiver process exists for just this reason. “It can be done and has been done.”
“I think that of the five (semifinalists) the one that I think will move us forward for the next year is Joe Connelly,” said Wenger. “I’m confident with that choice for myself and for what I was hearing around the community,” said Wright.
Sensing consensus, Cheveralls’ Connelly vote was his sole statement on his preferred candidate. But Cheveralls expressed awe with the search process. Seventeen candidates applied. But Cheveralls said the three finalists shined.
“I just went through their resumes again. On six pieces of paper, they have 125 collective years of experience,” said Cheveralls. “That is, to me, an incredibly humbling experience — that I’m one of six sitting in judgment of that experience.”
The search process goes through another layer of scrutiny when the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education decides whether to grant Harvard a similar critical-need waiver, allowing the district to pull a retired administrator back to service with pay atop their pension if a search fails to produce a superior candidate. Cheveralls will make the DESE filing this week. The committee hopes to seal the deal with Connelly with an April 4 vote to accept employment terms.