Originally printed April 22, 2010.
Some of the people who keep track of such things tell me that Mark Bezek hit all the right notes Tuesday when it came to addressing the types of educational research and management literature that school district superintendents are supposed to keep track of. With all that listing of 20 management pillars, with all that explanation of what it means to be a "change agent," the current superintendent of Elk River, Minn., Schools managed to show that, in his words, "I know enough to be dangerous in a lot of things."
But if Bezek did hit all the right notes, it was sometimes hard to follow the melody. He had his motifs of "faith, trust and transparency" and his counter melodies about "letting good people do their job," but he never established a strong chord structure as he improvised responses to such questions as:
• What are your strengths? (Assembling a team of good people and building relationships with them so that, when brainstorming with senior staff, "I want to be the dumbest one there.")
• What are your weaknesses? (Bezek said he would face a learning curve to understand the ins and outs of Iowa school finance and would be looking to administrative staff to help him get up to speed.)
• How have you handled both uninvolved and rogue school board members? (Because superintendents can't "discipline" board members, Bezek works through the local board leadership and encourages board members to take advantage of professional development that "teaches them what their roles are." After all, "you can't have happy campers without happy counselors.")
• Give some examples of how you have communicated well with the public? (Since Bezek has implemented and improved a communication department in Elk River, he said the community now "loves the communication from the district.")
• How have you implemented new programs? (Bezek went back to his time in Fergus Falls, Minn., to talk about how he implemented an alternative education program and how he worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a magnet school program at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center.
• How do you measure the success? ("We're data freaks. We don't just collect data. We use data in a ... very personal manner.")
• How do you prepare a board for politically sensitive issues? (By giving hard data and explaining how the issue relates to best practices or to the best of what's happening in other communities.)
• How do you address achievement gaps and growing racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity? (Elk River, while otherwise "mirroring" Iowa City, has not experienced those changes to the same degree yet. But they are preparing for such changes by implementing cultural competency curriculum and by realizing they need to address new families through direct outreach efforts.)
Although Bezek's answers might have included all the buzzwords on people's various check lists, Tuesday's interview still matters less than checking the extent to which Bezek's words actually match up to what he accomplished from 2001 to 2006 as superintendent of Fergus Falls Public Schools and since 2006 in Elk River. And that double checking is all the more important because Bezek responded to many of the Iowa City-focused questions by acknowledging, "I haven't studied your district enough to be able to answer that."
Bezek's answers also highlight the learning curve each of the three finalists will face because the school board couldn't find one single finalist who actually works in Iowa and understands the idiosyncrasies of Iowa school finance.
The school board met Wednesday with the second finalist, Steve Murley, superintendent of the Wausau, Wis., School District. And the public interview for the final finalist -- Brad Meeks, superintendent of Farmington, Minn., School District -- will begin at 6:15 p.m. today.
Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-887-5435.