Erik Kelt has a plan.
After starting his new position as principal of the Springs School on July 1, Mr. Kelt — who arrived here at the end of a tumultuous school year that saw significant employee turnover and declining morale — has developed an approach for his first 100 days that focuses on leading by listening and learning.
First presented on July 18, his Strong Start Plan has been posted on the school district website for parents, students, and staff to see.
“It’s been a great month. There are a lot of wonderful things already going on,” said Mr. Kelt, who kicked off his educational role with summer programs in special education and English as a new language. “It’s a lot of preparation, planning. The big part of my 100-day plan, and the most beneficial part for me, is meeting the teachers, having conversations with them, and getting to understand how they want to grow as educators.”
With checkpoints every 25 days beginning on Monday, the Strong Start Plan entails the gathering of data and feedback that will be presented publicly in November. It includes listening sessions with members of the public, school officials, employee unions, and the town board, and attendance at local events and festivals to absorb community traditions and values.
Mr. Kelt is asking questions: “What are our strengths? What are our challenges? What should we start doing? What should we stop doing? What is possible?” He is committed, he says, to leading with “authenticity, logic, and empathy.”
“It’s an opportunity, right? It’s an opportunity for me to come in and lead in the way I want to lead, which is through growing and working with the faculty and staff and listening. . . . I really have to do a lot of listening and learning in the forefront. We all know what makes a great school run. There’s very little gray area. What really makes a school run are the people, and so we want to make sure we’re all heading in the same direction and aligned to a common vision and set of values.”
It couldn’t come at a better time — the Springs School is regrouping after losing numerous key employees. The previous principal, Christine Cleary, and assistant principal, Josh Odom, both resigned in February; their departures followed those of several experienced and popular teachers and other administrators over the last couple of years. Some have left the South Fork altogether, others have gone on to work at nearby schools and municipal jobs. Between resignations and retirements, Springs has lost around 80 employees over five years.
On Tuesday, the school board held a frank discussion about those resignations, including how to retain employees in a cash-strapped district that has limited ability to increase salaries and zero ability to control many staff members’ long rush-hour commute times.
Could the school change its hours so that teachers and office employees can take advantage of the South Fork Commuter Connection train-and-shuttle system? Can the district somehow reward car-pooling? Can it push parents to fill out free/reduced-price lunch paperwork, which could lead to more state and federal grant funding and create wiggle room in the budget for pay raises?
“It is a juggling act that we are definitely struggling with, I have to say,” said Barbara Dayton, the board’s president. “Salary is pretty much the only way we can solve that. Housing? Not a viable option for Springs. We can’t be a landlord and have housing for people.”
At the moment, Springs is facing an acute shortage of teacher assistants, positions that can be demanding but that usually start out with annual salaries of less than $30,000. The district needs five more such aides to be fully staffed for next month’s start of classes.
Kristy Lamonda, a special-ed teacher and co-president of the Springs Teachers Association, pointed out that few incentives exist for people to take and keep teaching-assistant positions. Whereas teachers are compensated for taking on additional classes and obtaining new certifications, teaching assistants, she said, are not.
She also called on administrators to specify that the positions are most likely for the special-education program.
“This is a specific calling, in a way,” Ms. Lamonda said. “The people who have stepped up and done that, and have been with us for years in that capacity, throw them a bone to say, we really appreciate what you’ve done . . . I have so much respect for the teaching assistants in special education specifically, and I would do anything to make them feel as valued and appreciated as possible.”
The board vowed to continue exploring the recruitment and retention issue.
Members also talked about finding a successor to the superintendent, Debra Winter, who will conclude her service to Springs on June 30, 2024. Options include hiring a search firm and conducting the process on its own. Six years ago, the district spent $20,000 on the search firm that led to Ms. Winter’s appointment.
Going it on their own this time “does seem manageable,” said Ms. Dayton, who has researched other districts’ practices, but “If we’re doing this ourselves, can we cast a wide enough net to get a good pool of applicants?”
“We have two things going for us,” said Erik Frederickson, the board’s vice president. “We’ve found a tremendous principal and assistant principal [Jessica Rodgers]. I think we’ve had a lot of interest, and people really came together. That was a successful model that we can look at replicating.”