City’s new school chief brings experience
Russell has worked in multiple positions
Citing strong practical experience, and an ability to craft budgets in tough fiscal times, the Salem School Committee has tapped Stephen Russell to become the city’s next school superintendent.
“We think he brings a wealth of experience and we’re looking forward to having him here,’’ said Mayor Kim Driscoll, who also serves as chairwoman of the School Committee.
Last week, the School Committee voted 5-2 to offer Russell - who worked for 12 years as a superintendent in Laconia, N.H., and Dartmouth - the school district’s top position. The two School Committee members who dissented, Kerry Martin and Janet Crane, voted for the other finalist, Debra Bradley, a former superintendent in Sausalito, Calif.
Russell was named following a superintendent search that began in May, after William Cameron announced he had accepted a similar post at the Central Berkshire Regional School District in western Massachusetts. According to School Committee member James Fleming, 18 educators applied to succeed Cameron, who left the district last week.
Russell, who is 58, grew up in Concord, N.H. He has worked as an elementary school teacher in Vermont, been a guidance counselor in Barnstable, served as a K-8 principal in Candia, N.H., and spent four years as the Laconia, N.H., superintendent before being named to lead the Dartmouth school district in 2003. In June, Russell left Dartmouth after he was unable to reach a new contract. In recent months, Russell had also been a finalist in Peabody, Hopkinton, and Leominster.
Russell is expected to sign a new contract in the coming weeks in Salem. According to Driscoll, the job will pay between $140,000 and $170,000.
Driscoll said School Committee members were impressed with Russell’s track record and ability to make tough decisions. Over the years at Dartmouth, Russell helped implement a full-day, tuition-free kindergarten program and also was forced to close two schools and redistrict students after the town rejected a Proposition 2 1/2 override to keep the schools open.
Russell called himself a “people person’’ and said his greatest skill is to work with people in positive and constructive ways. “I’m like the orchestra leader, and each person plays a part collectively,’’ he said. “Our music is that of student learning.’’
Russell said he would spend most of his first year listening to city officials, educators, parents, students, and business leaders and others who have a vision of what the school district should become.
Besides working much of the time to craft a budget and keep the district fiscally solvent, Russell will oversee the new Salem Community Charter School, which will open this year and be run by the school district. About 50 Salem teenagers have enrolled in the new charter, which was designed for at-risk high school students. He will also oversee the proposed curriculum and teaching changes at the Carlton Elementary School, which was named an “Innovation School.’’
In addition, Russell will manage two major school construction projects that will begin this fall at the Collins Middle School and Saltonstall School. The $40 million middle school project, which calls for a new roof, windows, heating, ventilation, masonry, and other repairs, will take two years to complete, and will be done while students are at the school. The $15 million Saltonstall project calls for similar repairs, but the students will be relocated to the former St. Joseph School for more than a year, said Driscoll.
Driscoll and Fleming said one of the biggest challenges Russell will face is finding a way to boost academic achievement - specifically, the district’s MCAS scores. Last year, the district’s warning/failure rate in each grade exceeded the state average.
“We have to be innovative and do everything we can to improve student performance in all areas,’’ said Driscoll.
Russell, who is moving from a 4,000 student district to a city with 4,600 district students, plans to review curriculum in each school, and assessment results from several sources, including state tests such as the MCAS and in-district data. “I’ll look at the barriers, and the assessment data, and then, in conversations, I’ll get a sense of what we can collectively improve upon,’’ he said.
Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com.