Hiring a superintendent is often referred to as the most important decision a school board will make, since it is the only position it has the authority to hire.

The decision rests with the school board alone, a point board members were reminded of by two members of the Minnesota School Boards Association's executive search team during a special meeting last week.

However, the board sought public opinion to find out what characteristics that district residents desired in a new superintendent, along with their view of the schools and their challenges.

To gather that information, a survey was conducted in December. Of the nearly 400 people surveyed, roughly 4 in 5 fell into either the staff member or parent categories.

Opinion was split on whether previous superintendent experience was important, with 52% saying it was not important.

Approximately one-third of those taking the survey also offered comments around four main areas.

  • A superintendent’s presence within the community was important.

  • Soft skills comments included leadership, communication, being approachable, honest, empathetic and understanding, a good listener, the ability to make decisions, solve problems and build relationships.

  • The ability to understand and oversee finances was viewed as important.

  • Many people who responded emphasized the need to keep the focus on the students.

Listening sessions

Of the 10 listening sessions, two were with the public, seven with staff and one with a large group of students. In all, 102 people participated, and Barb Dorn, director of leadership development and executive search for the MSBA, said the responses they received were similar to the replies from the survey that was done the previous month.

The same five questions were asked of every group.

Positives: Asked to cite good things currently occuring in the district, community support and partnerships was mentioned in every group as a strength of the district and a source of pride, according to the MSBA summary.

“Every listening session mentioned that,” Dorn said. To hear that every single time, she said, “is truly, truly unique.”

The other four main themes were facilities, the district's reputation, technology, and the curriculum and teachers, which was referenced by many.

Challenges: Four main challenges were identified.

"Many participants mentioned that although Alexandria is not currently very diverse, both its racial and socio-economic demographics are changing and the district may not yet be prepared for such changes," the MSBA summary said.

The mental health of students was frequently mentioned, with space and future funding rounding out the top responses.

Qualities: When asked what qualities people want to see in the next superintendent, many soft skills emerged, such as leadership, transparency, relationship-building, trust, listening skills and visibility. The other two top points were foundational knowledge and having vision while respecting the past.

Local knowledge: When it came to what the new superintendent should know about this district and community, many want the new hire to value the connections between school and community. Traditions of excellence was another top answer, noting the historical pride in the district and how people are used to being involved in how decisions are made. Every group also noted a growing income gap and how it is starting to be reflected in the student body.

One thing: The fifth question was what one thing they would want to say to the next superintendent. Participants repeatedly said they would welcome the new hire, and they wanted the person to get involved both in and outside of the schools, and learn about the district.

"The fact that these themes bubbled to the top very clearly is a good thing, and speaks well to the foundation that you've laid here," Dorn said.