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UPDATE | Superintendent search is down to three finalists

Three finalists — including two from out of state — have been chosen in the search for a new superintendent for the South Whidbey School District.

The finalists are Mellody Matthes, the assistant superintendent for the Tukwila School District; Josephine “Jo” Moccia, the superintendent of the Averill Park Central School District, based in Averill Park, N.Y.; and Jeff Sweeney, superintendent of the Fillmore Unified School District in California.

The South Whidbey School Board conducted interviews with five semifinalists for the superintendent position this past weekend, and the three finalists were named after the close of Saturday’s sessions.

“We were impressed with all five,” said Rich Parker, chairman of the school board.

“It was a great pool,” Parker said. “And we just think that these three had a little bit better fit with what we’re looking for. We’re excited about the next round.”

“I believe that any one of the three finalists could be successful in our district, based on what I heard in the semifinalist interviews,” added School Board Member Steve Scoles.

“Each of them have multiple talents and experience that would be very helpful,” he said. “I am looking forward to the meetings next week where we will learn a lot more.”

The three finalists will return to South Whidbey for site visits and meetings with district employees and the community on May 17, 18 and 19. Board members expect to vote on the replacement for Superintendent Fred McCarthy, who is retiring from his job as chief of schools at the end of June, at 10 p.m. Thursday, May 19.

Parker said that there was “pretty unanimous” consensus on the three finalists between the board and the observers to the interviews, which included members of the school district’s three unions, PTA members and community representatives.

“People would be happy with any one of the three, which is really nice,” Parker said.

Though two of the finalists hail from outside, both have ties to the Evergreen State.

Moccia, who was an assistant superintendent in the Averill Park Central School District before taking over as superintendent, has a daughter who lives in West Seattle. She recalled visiting South Whidbey when her daughter was married here in 2004.

Moccia said South Whidbey’s challenges are not unique; all across the country, school districts are facing declining revenues.

Her own district is facing a $4.2 million drop in funding from the state, and in New York, the district’s annual budget must be approved by voters. The budget hole led to the loss of 40 teaching positions in a district with a faculty of 250, which followed a $2.5 million funding gap the year before that meant elementary school closures.

“There is nothing easy about what faces education these days,” Moccia said. “My whole focus is really being a collaborative leader and helping the board to see its way through some tough decisions.”

Sweeney said his father was from Washington, and he recalled growing up to his father’s stories of building a boat and sailing on Puget Sound. He makes frequent trips to visit family here, and he and his wife own a second home on Bainbridge Island.

Living and working on Whidbey would mean the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, he said.

“I’m honored and I’m excited about the possibilities,” Sweeney said.

He said the interview process gave him a good sense of the district’s priorities, and he was heartened by the inclusion of staff and community members in the interview process.

Sweeney said he was impressed with his quick tour of the district, and was looking forward to learning more during his return visit next week.

“The facilities look great,” he said, adding that he has been impressed with the community’s support of its schools, such as the work done by the South Whidbey Schools Foundation in supporting students and staff.

Matthes, the third candidate, has the strongest ties to the area. She was the executive director of human resources in the Oak Harbor School District for six years before leaving in 2010.

“I’m very excited. It’s an honor to be in the top three for the district,” Matthes said.

“I believe that South Whidbey has set the foundation for really good student achievement and growth, and we’ll be seeing the fruits of that labor I hope in a very short amount of time,” she said.

She also recalled several challenges during her time in Oak Harbor, which included the closing of an elementary school and difficult reductions in staffing.

Parker, the chairman of the school board, said each finalist has dealt with issues similar to those faced by South Whidbey.

“Declining enrollment is a national issue; it’s a national trend,” he said.

If there was a common theme that emerged on why people were interested in the superintendent’s job, Parker said, it was the progress that South Whidbey has already made and the steps taken to improve student achievement.

“And that’s all the work we did with Fred McCarthy,” Parker said. “I think we reached our goals of what we really wanted to accomplish while Fred was here.”

The three finalists will return next week for a full day in the district, touring schools, talking with teachers and staff and meeting with the community at the end of the night.

Matthes will visit on May 17; Sweeney on May 18; and Moccia on May 19. Meetings with the community will run from 7 to 8 p.m. in the school board room on the primary school campus.

Meet the finalists

The three finalists for superintendent of South Whidbey schools will visit the South End next week.

Tuesday, May 17: Mellody Matthes

Wednesday, May 18: Jeff Sweeney

Thursday, May 19: Josephine Moccia

CANDIDATE VISIT SCHEDULE

8:30 – 9 a.m.  Meet with superintendent and a board member; candidate tour of the school district.

9 a.m.  Meet with district office staff.

9:45 a.m.  Tour of the district.

11:15 – 11:45 a.m.  Lunch.

11:45 a.m. – 12:45 p.m.  Meet with administrators at the district office.

1 p.m.  Meet with bus drivers, maintenance and food service workers at the Transportation and Maintenance Building.

2 p.m.  Meet with Superintendent Fred McCarthy.

3 p.m.  Meet with teachers and staff at South Whidbey High School.

4 p.m.  Meet with teachers and staff at the elementary school.

5 p.m.  Interview with the school board in an executive session.

6 p.m.  Dinner with the board.

7 – 8 p.m.  Meet with parents and community members in school board room.

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