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Mayor Seeks ‘stability’ for City Schools

January 15, 2019

LOWELL -- After the former superintendent’s very public dismissal this fall, Mayor William Samaras wants to start seeking a permanent replacement.

“I think there’s an expectation that we bring closure to this issue,” Samaras said.

A motion proposed by Samaras to “begin establishing the process for the appointment and hiring” of a permanent superintendent will come before the School Committee at a meeting in City Council Chambers at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Samaras said he wants to start the conversation about hiring to bring stability to the district.

“What I want to see is the stability that is needed for our students to get a good education,” he said

In July, the School Committee voted 4-3 to start the process of terminating Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui -- a process that ultimately took four months amid executive sessions, settlement negotiations and threats of lawsuits. Since that summer meeting, former Assistant Superintendent Jeannine Durkin has been serving as acting superintendent at no increase to her $157,075 annual salary.

Last year’s upheaval comes near the close of a decade of overturn in the district’s top spot.

Chris Scott was hired as a superintendent in 2008 and left when the School Committee did not offer her a new contract. In 2011 Jean Franco was named superintendent, but decided to retire in 2014, months after the School Committee voted to shorten her contract from two years to one.

Khelfaoui started in 2015 and was dismissed in 2018. Like the others, he served in the position for about three years.

Samaras and School Committee member Gerry Nutter both said this history could be a barrier to attracting candidates.

“Given the history, given the politics of the city, outsiders haven’t always been embraced. ... (However,) it can happen,” Nutter said.

He said the district’s finances, including millions in shortfalls, could be another challenge for the search.

Nutter said he would like to see someone in the role permanently by the start of next school year, but would support extending the deadline by a year if it would attract better candidates.

He said the district needs a superintendent with a firm grasp on finances and experience in a diverse urban district. He would like someone who could commit to the district for five to six years to provide continuity for the high school project.

According to Samaras, appointing a permanent superintendent would “empower” this person to tackle long-term issues like finances and instituting more diverse hiring practices.

He praised the work of the current acting superintendent.

“The only thing I’ve criticized (Durkin) for is she’s been working 24/7. ... No one can keep up that pace,” Samaras said.

Nutter said Durkin has a lot of internal knowledge and should apply if she wants the job, but he would also like to consider other options, including candidates from outside the district.

“I want at this point to do a complete search and not limit it,” Nutter said.

School Committee member Jackie Doherty declined to say whether she would support a full search before speaking to her colleagues at the upcoming meeting, but spoke favorably of Durkin.

Doherty said Durkin has demonstrated professionalism and leadership during a time of financial crisis. When asked whether she would be interested in appointing Durkin as a permanent superintendent, she said she would “be open to that conversation.”

Other members of the School Committee did not respond to requests for comment.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins

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