Monday, April 25, 2011

Meeks: Superintendent must hit ground running

Originally printed April 24, 2010.

The third and final candidate for superintendent of the Iowa City School District -- Brad Meeks, superintendent of Farmington, Minn., schools -- brought the conversation back to the concepts of "trust" Thursday.

Answering a question about why his district's administration has such a good working relationship with the teachers' union, Meeks explained that "the big thing is trust." When Meeks arrived in Farmington back in 2003, there was a hostile relationship between the union and several previous administrators. The contract negotiations, Meeks said, were done with administration and union representatives in different rooms, and the emotions tended to run high on both sides.

After hiring a new human resources officer, Meeks said he worked on improving the relationship so that the negotiations could be done in the same room. And after he had enough "trust" in his administrative staff -- and they had earned the "trust" of the union leadership -- he could be confident that negotiations would go on respectfully and efficiently.

Meeks has been a somewhat controversial figure in Farmington. Back in 2005, the Farmington school district and city had a dispute about the location of a new high school. The district found a location on the north end of the district, but the city wanted a location closer to the center of town to attract business. A lawsuit eventually was filed and went to mediation in 2006, which resulted in the school being built in the originally proposed location.

(On Thursday, Meeks said that the issue has been dealt with, relations with the city have improved over the past few years and the community has moved on.)

Meeks was the only superintendent who brought up how his district had managed to have three schools improve their test scores enough to be removed from the Schools in Need of Assistance list. In answer what steps were taken to accomplish this feat, Meeks praised the quality of his staff and said that the district pumped more resources into the schools, added K-12 math specialists and increased the number of times that students were tested so that the educators could know which areas needed to be improved.

When answering, Meeks didn't always offer the most polished responses. Yet he was comfortable about being silent for a few seconds to consider his answer. And while there were a few times when he continued talking past when he actually had something to say, for the most part he seemed to be providing a thoughtful answer based on his experience in the 6,400-student Farmington district.

After the board exhausted its questions, Meeks asked a very practical question of his own: What do you want a superintendent to accomplish in the first six months?

The answers from the board members highlighted how difficult a transition it is going to be to go from Lane Plugge to any new superintendent. After all, Plugge has served as superintendent for 11 years -- a longer tenure than anyone on the board. Plugge has become the institutional memory for the board.

Thus it was made clear Thursday that the board really needs a new superintendent who can hit the ground running. One who -- after a short period of getting to know the personalities and problems of the district -- will offer practical steps toward solutions.

The school board is scheduled to discuss the new superintendent in a closed session at 6 p.m. Sunday in the Central Administration Office. Meeks' interview -- along with the interviews of the two other finalists, Steve Murley and Mark Bezek -- will broadcast all weekend on ICCSD Cable Channel 21.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 887-5435.

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