MAHOPAC, N.Y.— The search for a new Mahopac High School principal took a step forward last week when the school district held a community forum to learn what qualifications and leadership qualities residents believe the candidate should have.
The forum, held at the high school’s library Thursday, Feb. 16, was led by Lynn Allen and John McCarthy, both assistant superintendents for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES, which is acting as consultants for the school district in the candidate search.
The search for a new principal was necessitated when former principal Dr. Adam Pease was promoted last year to assistant superintendent. Athletic Director John Augusta has been serving as interim principal.
“We have been working closely with the School Board and administrative team and a variety of different focus groups,” Allen told the audience at last week’s forum. “We were [at the high school] earlier this week and met with students, faculty and administrators. Now, we are happy to meet with parents and community members because we would like to get as much feedback as possible.”
McCarthy said that he and Allen are putting together a profile of the ideal candidate to present to the School Board and are doing that by meeting with as many of the stakeholders as possible.
Besides the forums that BOCES has been conducting, the district has placed a survey on its website that parents and residents can fill out to express what they’re looking for in a new principal.
“We have been pleased with the response [to the online survey],” McCarthy said. “It went up on Saturday and by the beginning of the week, we had over 100 responses.
At last week’s forum, residents expressed views on what they wanted in a new principal that ranged from positions on curriculum to expertise on special education and bullying.
Parent Pete Maccio said he went through the Mahopac School District and had been living in Westchester County before recently moving back. He two kids at Austin Road Elementary.
“I think a big thing is hiring from within,” he said. “If you have a viable candidate from within the school district I would say that is something that is very important, not only for the candidate but for other teachers to see. If you bring someone in from the outside, it can create an animosity toward that person. I have seen it in the corporate world. People think, ‘Wait a minute, I put in years of blood, sweat and tears for this company and they think that candidate is better me?’ You lose talent when you don’t hire from within.”
Town Councilwoman Suzy McDonough, who attended the forum, said she has been told that there is a flipside to promoting someone from within the district.
“If you have a teacher who becomes a principal, it can be difficult for that principal to relate to the teachers because now she’s their boss and there may be some animosity there,” she said.
Most in the audience said that the new principal must maintain an open-door policy and be approachable by students, teachers, administrator and parents.
“I had that when I went to school here,” McDonough said “It was an open-door policy with the principal back then. I haven’t seen that lately, if at all. If we can get someone that the students can respect, as well as the parents and the teachers, that’s a home run.”
Lynne Mongon, an administrative assistant in the guidance office at Mahopac Middle School, said if the district does hire from within, it should be someone with administrative experience.
“I wouldn’t like to see a teacher who has no administrator experience come in and be responsible for curriculum and special education and discipline,” she said.
Some suggested that the new principal must be from Mahopac, or at least move to the community when that candidate gets the job.
“You need someone who lives in the community and is the face of the community,” Mongon said. “Someone who is strong and fair.”
McDonough suggested adding a residency clause to the new hire’s contract.
“Living here is important for two reasons,” she said. “One, if you pay the taxes, so you are aware of what is going on. Second, if you are [out in the community], you have to face the people whose children you have.”
Parent Nanette Saturn said it was crucial that the candidate be knowledgeable in dealing with special-needs students.
“I would like, whoever it is, to be sensitive to the special-needs community,” she said. “I feel, in general, the Mahopac schools are rather segregated when it comes to that compared to other schools. I feel there is a big separation. It would be nice if we had someone with experience and some sensitivity to that and could bring the kids and special needs kids together and make the special-needs families feel like they are a part of this community. I think that’s really important.”
Others said it was important that the candidates are willing to make a long-term commitment to the district.
“Just don’t have him or her use this as a stepping stone,” McDonough said. “We’ve had so many people come in here for just three or four years and then they are gone. They don’t have a vested interest in the community. We want someone who will invest in this community and spend some time in it and not just use us.”
Mongon said it was important that the new principal understand the curriculum and how it relates from grades K through 12.
“We’ve had some who come in for two years and do it one way and then leave and then you get two years of something else, so you never get any continuity,” she said. “You need to have that continuity from kindergarten to 12th grade. What they are reaching for in kindergarten should be their ultimate goal in 12th grade. Everybody can’t be on their own island. You have to grasp the school as a community.”
Audience members also said, when it comes to discipline, they want someone who is fair and balanced and won’t show favoritism to a certain segment of the student body, such as student athletes. Saturn said that was especially important for the special-ed kids.
“Special-ed kids actually get suspended a lot more and if we have an educated principal who might be aware of the issues, they can get the help that that student needs,” she said. “You have to be fair and these kids get pushed out of school a lot for things that they can’t control.”
Audience members also raised the issue of drugs and the opiate crisis plaguing the region and said the new principal needs to bring more programs to help with the struggle.
Challenges are safety and security… I think it’s lacking in a lot of areas.
I have sat across from [administrators] and said you need to bring stuff to the kids that they can relate to,” said Lisa Mastropietro, president of the middle school PTO.
Allen and McCarthy said culling all the information from the forums they’ve held is the first step in finding the new principal, whom they hope to have in place by early July.
“We will start with a lot of resumes and whittle it down to a workable number and start doing screening interviews,” McCarthy said. “We will screen anywhere between 10 and 20 candidates and then whittle that down to about eight to 10 candidates.”
Those candidates will then meet with the administrative team and then they will be whittled down to three or four candidates. Those candidates will be invited back to meet with a confidential committee for an interview. That committee will comprise members of the public, teachers and administrators.
“It will be a good representation of all the stakeholders. They will give feedback on each of those candidates to the superintendent and his team who will do another interview,” McCarthy said. “Hopefully at the May board meeting, the board will have the opportunity to interview the candidate and appoint the candidate. Our goal is to have the candidate start by early July.”