Committee Quizzes 3 Finalists for School Supt.
FITCHBURG -- Two local candidates and one outside candidate interviewed Monday to become the city’s next leader of public schools.
Acting Superintendent Bob Jokela, Fitchburg High School Principal Jeremy Roche, and Karen Zaleski, director of student services for Hopkinton Public Schools, were recommended by a search committee from among 19 applicants.
“The next superintendent must have a strong vision they can effectively communicate,” said Danette Day, a professor at Fitchburg State University who told the School Committee about the work of the search committee before the hour-long superintendent interviews began.
Roche pointed to 12 years experience as a principal -- four years at Fitchburg High and eight at Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton.
“It’s kind of like you’re in charge of a planet with 37 moons,” he said.
Roche said his experience working on budgeting, building management, and with officials from local and state government would translate to the role as superintendent.
When asked about a situation of having to cut a program or fix a school roof, he said the building would be a priority if it affects health and safety.
Keeping up with school building projects would be about working with the city and state agencies to have funding and resources, Roche said.
“A superintendent can’t make decisions alone and it’s going to involve forward planning,” he said.
School safety is important, Roche said, adding that there should be balance of a free learning environment with security in schools “without making it feel like Walpole State Prison.”
Zaleski is the head of student services in Hopkinton, a position she has held since 2015.
She is interested in the superintendent position because of her history in the city and her background in education and as a mental-health and substance abuse clinician.
“I grew up in the city, spent great a deal of time in the city, and I understand urban challenges,” Zaleski said.
She wants to be a superintendent that is visible and creates strong relationships with those in the city, School Department, and the community.
To minimize the effect of budget cuts, she said it’s important to find support and make changes to programs so there’s not an educational impact. Finding grant funding could also be helpful.
“Capitalize on as many resources as you can,” Zaleski said.
Mayor Stephen DiNatale, who chairs the School Committee, asked whether taking over a larger school district with a more urban population would be a culture shock.
Zaleski said she understands that were would be a learning curve and would be willing to work with the city to come up to speed.
Jokela, who was appointed acting superintendent in June, first joined the district as business manager a decade ago and was later appointed to assistant superintendent of finance and operations to oversee budgeting.
He has experienced some of the challenges the district, like repairing school buildings, many of which are more than 50 years old.
“We’re part of the city and have to work with the city to address some of those problems,” Jokela said.
He sees an opportunity to do that now to rebuild Crocker Elementary School.
Previous and current roles have allowed Jokela to interact with students, parents, city officials, and state agencies, he said.
Becoming a visible part of the community would involve getting to events to meet constituents and be available to answer any of the public’s questions, Jokela said.
“The best way to improve our visibility or reputation is to improve the overall academic outcomes,” he said.
The School Committee will vote for a new superintendent at a Dec. 10 special meeting at Memorial Middle School.
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