Grosse Pointe Schools narrows its superintendent field

By: April Lehmbeck | Grosse Pointe Times | Published April 22, 2015

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After interviewing three superintendent semifinalists April 20, the Grosse Pointe Public School System Board of Education chose two candidates for the final interview process.

The school board in a 5-2 vote at a special meeting April 21 selected Novi Superintendent Steve Matthews and a candidate with superintendent experience in Illinois, Gary Niehaus, as the two finalists. The board eliminated Lapeer Community Schools Superintendent Matthew Wandrie from further consideration, but he did have some support at the table.

“You brought us people that had the characteristics that we were looking for,” school board Treasurer Brian Summerfield said to Larry Lobert, a representative of the district’s superintendent search firm, School Exec Connect.

The two finalists will take part in an extensive process that will include a school board dinner, a public forum and a final interview next week.

Days with each candidate will include 4:30 p.m. public forums and interviews each evening. The program will be at Grosse Pointe North April 28 with Neihaus and Grosse Pointe South April 29 with Matthews.

“I’m looking forward to next week and hearing the community’s questions for the candidates and their responses,” school board trustee Lois Valente said.

Before the board started discussion of the candidate attributes during the April 21 meeting, Lobert cautioned the board to focus on positive attributes when discussing whom to move forward, saying that the board wasn’t choosing the new superintendent: It was selecting the people it wanted to know more about in the process.

He said the district had “three people who, as (they’ve) said, represent some great qualities.”

“We only bring you successful people,” he said. “These are folks who put themselves out there, who expose themselves and made themselves very vulnerable in the process, and they know only one of them is going to get selected.”

The question the board should consider was whether the candidate matched the superintendent profile that the district established, Lobert said.

All seven board members spoke favorably of Niehaus and were ready to move him forward at the start of discussion April 21.

“He’s got well over almost 20 years of superintendent experience,” board Vice President Daniel Roeske said. “He’s got that advanced degree.

“I was impressed in the interview that he’s researched our district,” he said. “He’s coming from out of the state, and he made calls to research our district.”

Roeske said Niehaus mentioned that he had visited the district.

“That sends a message to me that he has a genuine interest,” he said.

Roeske also liked some of Niehaus’ answers, including one about the first challenges he would tackle.

“He talked about the North-South relationship and trying to break down any barriers there, and I thought that was pretty astute of him,” Roeske said. “Dr. Niehaus is certainly high on my list.”

Others agreed.

“I thought, of all of the candidates, he fit the most of the characteristics of that profile,” board President Judy Gafa said. “He was visionary. He has been a leader.

“I always say right now I’m looking for a statesman, someone who the community’s going to trust again, and I think he’s going to be able to get that trust back from the community,” she said.

“Not only did he fall right into what we had determined what was needed in a superintendent, everything he brought was concise and had energy,” board trustee Cindy Pangborn said. “While I didn’t agree with everything he said, I can tell that he wants to hear everything. He’s not just set in his ways.”

There were favorable comments about Matthews, a former Grosse Pointe Public School System Board of Education member with extensive experience in education.

“He’s an incredible gentleman … and if somebody came down to me and said pick the top curriculum guy that you’d want to see over curriculum in the state, I would say Steve,” board trustee Ahmed Ismail said.

“He knows his stuff, and I think when it all gets down to basics, that’s what we’re here for,” Ahmed said.  

“He had experience in districts that are like ours and also knows the Michigan Legislature and the issues going on in Michigan,” board Secretary Margaret Weertz said.

The district is slated to select its superintendent during the first week in May, according to the superintendent search schedule.

The board still has some work to do before it wraps up the selection process.

“You’ve outlined an ambitious process moving forward that’s going to involve 14 reference checks, if you choose to go forward with the process we’ve recommended; four separate interviews with groups; written feedback from each of those groups; another interview with the board; (and) site visits if you so choose,” Lobert said.  

During the April 21 meeting, board members thanked those who have been involved in the process so far, including Gafa, the search firm and the community.

Gafa thanked the school board members.

“I appreciate how much everybody stuck to the process and supported the process and really embraced the process,” she said. “I think it did bring us three good candidates. … Any one of them is a qualified person for this district. I think you guys did a lot of good, hard work, as well.”

For more information on upcoming meetings and interviews, visit the district’s website at gpschools.schoolwires.net. The candidate interviews are available on the district’s website.

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