RSF Post Exclusive Interview with School Board President After Superintendent Departure

RSF Post Editor Rachel Laffer sits down for an exclusive interview with R. Roger Rowe School Board President Annette Ross after Superintendent Tom Bennett’s departure effective today. 

RL: Are you, within legally protected parameters, of course, able to briefly describe what caused Dr. Bennett’s departure? If not, what’s next? Who is the intermediate person filling this role until the new superintendent is selected?

AR: The Board anticipates providing an update regarding its plan to fill the position of superintendent at an upcoming meeting. Our very capable administrative team, which consists of Beth Engstrom, Executive Assistant to the Superintendent, Allison Oppeltz, our Director of Finance, and Joe Erpelding, our K-8 Principal, along with Bari Fox, the Assistant Principal, will keep the district running smoothly in the interim.

RL: In one sentence, how would you personally define what a superintendent is/does? 

AR: A superintendent is a leader who has a passion for education, can make tough decisions, and can implement a vision defined by the Board and reflected by the community.

RL: What will you do differently in your new search for a superintendent? How will you attempt to prevent a predicament like this from happening again in the near future? 

AR: We learned from our last superintendent search that it was difficult to find the right fit for our unique little district. At Rowe, this is not a position where you can lead from a 20,000-foot perch, delegating duties across a multitude of fully-staffed schools. This is a hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves kind of job. 

At Rowe, this is not a position where you can lead from a 20,000-foot perch, delegating duties across a multitude of fully-staffed schools. This is a hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves kind of job. 

Annette Ross

The superintendent at Rowe is involved in matters great and sometimes small. But just as important is their setting an example and fostering a certain culture. A case in point is discipline issues. The superintendent has to do a little bit of everything and work side by side with everyone. It’s a mixed bag of multitasking, but, in the end, the superintendent is the person who is accountable for the final outcome, which can have impactful consequences. In addition, a successful relationship between the Board and the superintendent is paramount.  

RL: What do you visualize as the ideal superintendent? What qualities will they have and require to uniquely lead at Rowe? 

AR: The ideal superintendent understands how to educate a child. That may sound basic or easy, but I think a little magic is involved in this equation. Over the years, I have heard talk about best practices, innovative education, or project-based education; the list goes on. Academia could probably never come to agree upon the perfect ingredients to bake that cake. I have witnessed the moment where an engaged child learns something new — it’s unforgettable. There is not one way to reach that result. For each student, it may be different. 

So how does a universal public education program achieve the goal of properly educating a child at such a microcosmic level? I think finding the all-encompassing answer is becoming increasingly rare. That said, Rowe doesn’t have a large student population, therefore we can maintain small class sizes. This gives the teachers a great advantage that translates to our students. We also have very engaged parents who have high expectations. 

What I hope we find for Rowe is a leader who can understand how to bring back the rigor and excellence of academics — as I described in an article the Post previously published — while not alienating our staff and parents. A delicate diplomacy is required. This engagement is not accomplished with words alone, but a plan of action. The work is demanding, but there are great rewards. We should never lose sight of how a solid foundation in education shapes a student for years to come. Like many of us, I still remember each of my grade school teachers. These relationships make deep impressions that last a lifetime. 

RL: Rowe has always been viewed as a premier educational facility in the County, if not the state. People move to the Covenant from all over the country just so their children can attend our school here. What role does a superintendent play in maintaining Rowe’s reputation and its high standards? 

AR: The superintendent sets the tone for the district, maybe even more so than the Board. We seek to find someone who can reflect our hopes and values, but who already possesses the knowledge of day-to-day work. We need a shared vision, one that we can articulate, but that’s just the framework. The picture eventually has to be filled in.

Many people move here for the school, but in the last few years we haven’t delivered the equivalent excellence of the past, exemplified by school leader Roger Rowe, to whom I have referred in a recent article. Yes, Covid is partly to blame, but we miraculously were able to adhere to the required regulations and stay open. 

But during Covid, attitudes about working in education changed. Public education became a political battleground. Fortunately, we have slowly come back from that. We see how essential a quality education is, and how it sustains and helps a child to grow. Our next superintendent has to prove that we can lift our educational standards. We have been complacent in some areas and our leadership needs to support us in making the changes necessary to restore excellence.   

RL: What would you say to parents right now who are concerned about this turn of events and how it may affect the school’s immediate future/function-ability and their children’s education?

AR: I would say, I am sorry. I had no idea how hard it would be to get this right. It takes time to fully understand what is working and what is not. At times, a Board member is left trying to put the puzzle pieces together and has to fill in the gaps as they go when essential parts are missing.

The heart of what we do is always focused on the students and the community that surrounds us. This school is built on a solid foundation of coveted legacy that incorporates its past, dictates its present, and envisions a future reflecting promise and joy. I’d like to think our next superintendent can embody all these things. Godspeed! 

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