Editor's note: Due to the timing of the interview, the story on Ned Pratt, the first candidate interviewed, was published March 28.
By M.E. Jones
SHIRLEY -- Ayer Shirley Regional School Committee members interviewed the second of four superintendent finalists last Wednesday night in the middle school library.
Christopher D. Casavant, school administrator for Gardner public schools since 2012, was previously the principal of Gardner Middle School and assistant principal of Turkey Hill Middle School in Lunenburg.
A 1996 graduate of Fitchburg State University, Casavant subsequently earned two master's degrees in the field of education from Boston College and Endicott College and a doctorate in education from Boston College.
From 2000 to 2003, he was educational director at Stetson School in Barre, a residential facility for boys with emotional and behavioral problems, and from 1997 to 2000 he was a special-education teacher at Elm Street Elementary School in Gardner.
Casavant has the resume to be a superintendent and previously applied for that position in the Gardner schools, but he didn't make the final cut. That was information he shared himself, unsolicited. Committee members "did our homework," but wouldn't have asked that question in public, Chairman Patrick Kelly said.
Casavant said he believes in being "honest and open." Asked how he would gain the trust and confidence of teachers and staff as superintendent, he said that was the only way to achieve that goal. Trust is "so individual," he said. "It's hard to earn and easy to lose."
But he expressed a clear vision for getting there. Communication must be a two-way conversation, always, he said. "You must accept feedback" as well as give directions, take time to explain decisions. Teachers and administrators appreciate a superintendent who takes the time to do that, even if they don't agree. "It's a start," he said.
As a new region, the three-year-old, two-town school district is still experiencing growing pains, member Dan Gleason said. "How would you help build a stronger school community?"
A superintendent needs to "be there as much as possible," Casavant said. "Make yourself available." Parent forums are crucial, and as superintendent his door would always be open to anyone in the community who wanted to talk to him, Casavant said.
Noting some of the things he'd picked up on about the Ayer Shirley district, he said it seemed that people were trying to integrate their schools and dispel tension with efforts such as the Ayer Shirley Educational Foundation, a fundraising group for all four schools in the two towns that was born in the Ayer public school district.
Asked to come up with "creative ideas" to meet students educational needs, Casavant didn't dodge the obvious reference to financing. "It seems like it's always a crisis," he said. But communication is key to problem-solving on both the municipal and school district sides of community funding.
When money is tight, budget battles are common in every community, he said, and not unique to this or any school system. "We're fighting over the same dollars," he said.
Speaking of money, Kelly brought up one of the priciest components in public schools: special education.
Casavant is uniquely qualified to talk about that issue, financially, educationally, professionally and personally as the father of a 13-year-old son with Down syndrome.
Kelly said it's important for many reasons to keep as many kids with special needs as possible in their home district, not the least of which is the high cost of tuition and transportation to place them outside the district.
Casavant said it's even more important to be prepared for unavoidable costs.
For example, if a student currently attending a special-education facility out of district is on track to "move up" to an even costlier placement, he said it's essential to know that fact as soon as possible and budget for it. Push for the information, he advised, rather than waiting to find out in July.
And for those students who can be educated in-house rather than placed elsewhere, it's not enough to have a room available; hire a special-education teacher and convince parents it's a good idea for their kids to stay -- or come back. The programs offered must be high quality and geared to meet their needs. In short, they must work, he said.
Asked how he'd stem choice-out flow, which is a bone of contention with town officials because it draws money from the district, Casavant said there are always other systems that seem more attractive, whether it's for academics or sports or technology programs. But the sending district must find out why students are leaving and "let them know you want them to stay," he said, citing strategies such as exit interviews to compile data, a key factor if a district expects to turn the tide.
He said there's nothing wrong with setting up appropriate roadblocks.
Asked how he would "promote" the great things happening in Ayer Shirley schools, he said that while PR is important, it's not typically a public school administrator's main focus, nor that of the principals who know better than anyone what's going on in the building, good and bad. "They need help" getting the word out, he said.
The interviews were to continue for two more evenings with George King, assistant superintendent/principal of Nashoba Regional School District's Hale Middle School in Bolton on Thursday and Mary Male, assistant superintendent of Haverhill public schools on Friday.