Finalists tour city, field students' questions

NASHUA – Leave it to students to ask a question that gets to the point.

The four finalists for superintendent spent Thursday touring the city and meeting with and fielding questions from teachers, administrators and community members.

It was during their meeting with the student senates from each high school when they were asked the one question that, when it comes down to who gets the job, truly matters: What sets you apart from the other candidates?

It was a blunt question, considering all four finalists were in the room together, so Kathleen Murphy, the first to answer the question, broke the ice.

“That’s easy: I’m female and they’re male,” she joked.

In seriousness, Murphy pointed to her 13 years as a classroom teacher as a quality she believed would make her the best choice for the city’s next superintendent.

“It gives you the perspective of what happens every day,” said Murphy, who now works as the director of the division of instruction for the New Hampshire Department of Education.

It was one of dozens of questions fielded by the finalists Thursday during the hectic 11-hour schedule. They began the day meeting at central office to meet with administrative staff.

They then hopped on a school bus to take a tour of the city.

They ate lunch with Mayor Donnalee Lozeau and spent the afternoon meeting with students and then staff. A community forum held at Nashua High School South capped the evening.

The student senates formed their questions in advance of the meeting.

With regard to what sets him apart, Mark Conrad, chief financial officer for the Bedford School District, said his experience working and living in Nashua was a unique quality.

He has had two children go through the school system and spent 10 years working as the school district’s business administrator before leaving in 2006.

“I feel like have a connection to the community that’s stronger than the other candidates’,” he said.

Brian Cochrane, who has worked nearly two years for Nashua as the director of accountability and assessment, told students he could combine the experience of being an in-house candidate with having worked in a variety of educational venues outside the city.

“In the short term, I think I know better than anyone else here where we need to go next,” Cochrane said.

Before coming to Nashua, Cochrane worked for Southern New Hampshire University and the Nova Scotia Department of Education.

Robert Reidy, superintendent of the Mahopac Central School District in New York, pointed to his 31 years of experience as a superintendent as the quality that best prepares his for the job.

“I’ve been a CEO for school districts as a superintendent for a long time in many districts,” he said.

Murphy is the only other candidate with experience as a superintendent, having run the Newmarket School District for five years before leaving in 2008. Cochrane and Reidy also have worked as classroom teachers.

Meeting the finalists

The next superintendent will replace Christopher Hottel, who is moving on to the North Andover, Mass., school system to become superintendent in July. Jim Mealey, Nashua’s chief financial officer, is also expected to head to North Andover.

The finalists went through their interviews with the Board of Education earlier this week. Thursday was their chance to meet with the community. The board’s decision is expected by the end of the month.

Several teachers, administrators and support staff took advantage of the opportunity to meet the finalists by attending one of the forums during the afternoon. Robert Sherman, president of the Nashua Teachers’ Union, asked whether they would have a hands-on approach or would allow individual schools to govern themselves.

Cochrane said he would choose some issues to become more involved in, such as developing a new attendance policy for the school district.

“To me, that’s an issue where the superintendent needs to drill down,” he said.

Peggy Reynolds, director of the school district’s small learning communities program, asked how the finalists plan to deal with the rising poverty level.

Conrad said his experience working as the director of the Head Start program in Portland, Maine, gives him some insight into what a district needs to do ensure all students are being challenged.

“I saw children in a cycle of poverty that began with their parents not finishing school,” he said, adding that is important to partner with other city agencies to work with poverty in the schools.

Jeanne O’Brien, a physical education teacher at Nashua South, chatted with Reidy after the staff forum at South. She and Reidy used to teach together, she said.

O’Brien said she spoke with the finalists about how they would make sure the district is focused on educating the whole child. Things like student wellness, art and music often fall by the wayside when it comes to priorities, she said.

“When push comes to shove, the emphasis is often put on the core subjects,” she said.

Student thoughts

Nashua South junior Chris Crawford, the student representative to the Board of Education, said he is looking for a superintendent who wants to communicate with students more.

Crawford said Hottel has been great communicating with teachers and district staff, but said he feels there is room to grow when it comes to listening to students and their ideas.

“We’re the biggest stakeholders,” he said.

Crawford said he liked the idea of the superintendent occasionally attending student forums, something that Conrad has suggested.

After the meeting with students, Josh Kern, a junior at North and vice president of the senate, said he liked Cochrane and Conrad because of their connections to the city.

Kern said he liked the idea of having someone like Conrad running the school district because he has had children in the schools.

“He’s got that insider view,” Kern said.

At the community forum at Nashua South, parents and other community members submitted their questions before the meeting and they were read to the finalists.

One of the questions asked whether they planned on living in the city.

Conrad already does and Reidy said he planned on it. Murphy said she and her husband just built a home in Chester and didn’t intend on moving if she got the position.

Cochrane, who lives in Goffstown, said it’s something he would consider, but also downplayed the significance of hiring someone solely based on whether they would choose to live in Nashua.

Another question asked how each finalist would recruit more minority candidates to work in Nashua. Reidy said he would want to go to the colleges and universities to recruit.

“One of the selling points we have here is our location and quality of life,” he said.

When asked what she would want to change upon becoming superintendent, Murphy said she would develop relationships in the district and in the community before making any changes.

“I’d also want to look at opportunities we can provide for students around high school reform,” she said.

Conrad, Cochrane and Reidy were asked to expand upon their stated opposition to the practice of grouping students by ability at the middle school level, also called leveling.

The middle schools in Nashua level students in the core subjects, something they told the Board of Education during their interviews that they were philosophically opposed to.

Each said Thursday evening that while they may not agree with it, such a drastic change to nonleveled classes couldn’t be made without extensive planning and professional development for teachers.