Six Northwest Indiana school boards have been on a mission this school year to find the right person to lead their districts, as six superintendents have retired or recently announced they will retire.
Griffith Public Schools and Hanover Community School Corp. in Cedar Lake recently appointed new superintendents — Michele Riise in Griffith and Mary Tracy-MacAulay in Cedar Lake.
The other local school districts still searching are School City of Hammond; Merrillville Community School Corp.; Tri-Creek School Corp. in Lowell; and Tri-Township Consolidated School Corp. in Wanatah, in LaPorte County.
The most recent school superintendent to announce their retirement was Hammond's Walter Watkins. Watkins, who will be 71 in May, has been with the district since 1977. The district's first black superintendent, Watkins has been in that position since Jan. 1, 2003.
Watkins said he has enjoyed his tenure in Hammond.
"Hammond has been good to me, but now it's time to move on and let someone else pick up the reigns," he said Monday.
"I'm happy to see that the referendums came to fruition during my tenure. We have been trying to get a new secondary school in Hammond since I first came on board. I'm very proud that we were able to accomplish that. For me, it's time to move on to the next phase of my life."
With 13,768 students, the School City of Hammond is the largest school district in Northwest Indiana. The Indiana Department of Education has graded the district a C since 2013-14. It operates four high schools, a career center, 13 elementary school buildings and four middle schools, two of which are connected to a high school.
Under Watkins' leadership, Hammond taxpayers approved a construction and general fund referendum — $110 million for the construction of a new high school and $70 million for operational expenses. The new high school will be built behind the current Hammond High School on Calumet Avenue.
Michael Adamson, director of board services for the Indiana School Boards Association, who is in charge of conducting the search for superintendent candidates in Hammond, said a series of meetings will begin next week, and members of the school district and the community will be able to comment about what they are looking for in the next school superintendent.
Adamson said the the last day for candidates to apply for the position is April 13.
"We have numerous applicants, already," he said.
"It's an attractive position, a good school corporation and a large school corporation. The fact that two school referendums were just approved makes it extremely attractive from a fiscal perspective."
Adamson said he is working with four school districts across the state, including the Carmel Clay Schools near Indianapolis, which has more than 16,000 students.
Other searches ongoing, outlook positive
Another state group, called the University Superintendent Search Team, is currently assisting Tri-Creek in Lowell and Tri-Township in Wanatah. The group, composed of representatives from Indiana, Purdue, Ball State and Indiana State universities, assists Indiana school boards with their searches for new superintendents.
ISU's Terry McDaniel said the application period for Tri-Creek is open until April 3, and he intends to share the number of applicants with the Tri-Township board this week.
"We're seeing a few more (superintendent) openings than usual this year," he said.
"That may be because there were new school board members elected in some areas and they wanted to look at working with someone new, or legislative changes that made it more attractive to retire for people who were near retirement.
"We've been doing searches for all over Indiana with districts as large as 15,000 and others, like Tri-Township, which has 370 students. It's a special treat to work with these boards and help them find new leaders."
In Merrillville, School Board President Mark Lucas and Vice President Thomas Bainbridge said they are currently in the middle of interviews.
The school district, with 6,528 students, has Merrillville High School as its flagship, and it's rated a B.
The board members said they are not yet close to naming a new leader, but thought the search team did a great job of weeding out the list of applicants. They said the salary range is in the $140,000s.
"There were nine or 10 applicants, and it's been narrowed down to three, and we're doing second interviews with those three," Bainbridge said. "We've got some good people. Among the three people, two are local superintendents."
The Hanover School Corp.'s Board of Trustees appointed MacAulay, the assistant superintendent/curriculum director, as the new superintendent effective July 1 to replace Thomas Taylor, who retired. MacAulay signed a three-year contract at an annual salary of $119,000.
The Griffith School Board on Tuesday named Assistant Superintendent Riise as the district's first female superintendent to replace Peter Morikis, who had been on a leave of absence following the death of a close family member. Riise's contract gives her an annual salary of $135,000 along with a $400 monthly allowance for business use of her vehicle and $2,000 for moving expenses.
Gary schools Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt resigned in February. Gary schools Emergency Manager Peggy Hinckley said she plans to look for a deputy superintendent to assist with day-to-day operations in the district.
The Gary school district was taken over by the state due to its poor fiscal and academic standing. Hinckley and MGT Consulting were appointed as emergency manager.
"I hope to take a name to DUAB in April. I will be looking for a deputy superintendent as well," Hinckley said.