F-F names finalists for school chief

By HEATHER NELLIS

Recorder News Staff

FONDA -- The Fonda-Fultonville Central School District Board of Education has narrowed its search for a superintendent to three candidates -- an educator with a doctorate who was fired from her last superintendent position, a North Country superintendent who recently asked his school's board not to renew his contract, and Fonda-Fultonville's high school principal.

The finalists include Berneice Brownell, Massena Central School District Superintendent Roger Clough, and Fonda-Fultonville High School Principal David Halloran, respectively.

Interim Fonda-Fultonville Superintendent Patrick Michel, the superintendent of Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said extensive background checks were conducted of each candidate.

He said the Board of Education went through every resume, "then we spent a lot of time discussing the good, the bad, and the ugly of each candidate."

"When you have people who are experienced superintendents, they make some people sad, and they make some people happy," he said. "The people they make sad, usually are very sad, and they sometimes get a little vindictive. So, we had to do extensive background checks on all of them."

"If you Google them," Michel continued, "you can see there's stuff that's good, and stuff that isn't good. If you Google me, believe it or not, you will find that as well. That's all part of being a leader. When you're a leader, you make some people happy, and you don't make some people happy. But everything was checked, and followed up, and investigated. We wanted to make sure we had people who are good people."

A Google search of the candidates appeared to back up Michel's analysis.

According to Times Herald-Record, a publication in the Hudson Valley, the Eldred Central School District Board of Education voted to terminate the last two years of Brownell's five-year contract in June 2010. The board's only explanation was it decided to exercise contractual options.

Days later, Brownell told the publication board members told her she was a bad communicator, and a poor fit for the 700-student district. The criticism never translated into specific charges, the report said.

"I never received any official complaint about anything," Brownell told the Times Herald-Record. "There's nothing that's verifiable."

The publication further quoted a member of the district's parent-teacher organization, who said Brownell had "well-known personality conflicts with some board members."

Multiple attempts to reach Brownell Thursday were unsuccessful.

A Thursday press release from HFM-BOCES said Brownell was the head of the education department at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania from 2001-07.

She had previously served as chief school administrator, assistant principal and special education coordinator for schools in New York and New Jersey, and earned her doctorate in educational leadership from Lehigh University in Bethlehem.

Clough is in his fifth year as superintendent at Massena. He's spent his entire career with the district, from substitute teacher, to teacher, to principal, to superintendent.

Clough asked the Massena Board of Education in June not to renew his contract when it expires next year, according to a Watertown Daily Times report, which said "his tenure was often marked by turmoil, including calls for his resignation and legal battles with the former assistant superintendent for business, who retired in July."

The Watertown paper noted a group called "Kids First" organized in December 2011, and "one of their goals was to remove Clough from his position ... A petition signed by 400 people who declared no confidence in Clough was presented to the board in November [2011]."

Clough said Thursday he's ready for change, and thinks his experience will benefit Fonda-Fultonville.

"Fonda-Fultonville mirrors the socioeconomics of Massena, and financially, the district is going through the same things Massena went through a couple of years ago," he said.

Massena saw the closure of three big business plants in that time, which caused hits to the tax base and tax levy, Clough said, and the school district also grappled with tightened state aid.

But now, thanks to what he described as "tough decision making" Clough identifies Massena as one of the "healthiest" districts in that region.

"We're fortunate because we have programs you probably wouldn't find unless you went into a suburb outside of New York City, and we've been able to maintain those programs," he said.

Halloran has been Fonda-Fultonville's high school principal since 2007. He previously served as the assistant principal at Johnstown High School for two years, and taught social studies at high schools in Tamarac and Ballston Spa.

Though he loves his current job, Halloran said he wants to make a difference district-wide. Considering the district's loss of $5 million in state aid in the past few years, and the impending $1.4 million shortfall projected next year, Halloran believes he can help foster open dialogue, communicate what's at stake, understand the issues facing the taxpayers, and solve problems.

"I care a lot about this district, and I know what needs to be done to survive this fiscal crisis so that we emerge as a leaner, wiser, fiscally-sound district that continues to offer an exceptional education," Halloran said.

That's in part due to his experience outside the educational sector, he said. Before obtaining his Master's degree and certification in school administration, he worked on a crab fishing boat in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska, and in the off season, he installed fiber-optic cable along 400 miles of the Alaskan railroad.

"In that work, I had to solve problems, communicate, and get people on the same page, and I guess I kind of miss that. The superintendent position allows more dialogue with adults about what needs to transpire. It's not that I don't like dealing with kids and kids' problems, but I'm interested in helping to solve problems on a larger scale."

Fonda-Fultonville School Board President Linda Wszolek said the candidates still have another full day of interviews, and though it's hoped the new superintendent will start Jan. 1, the process is far from complete.

"Just because they're finalists, doesn't mean anything is decided," she said of the candidates.

Wszolek said the board is looking for knowledgeable candidates with creative budgetary experience.

"If you look at [Halloran], he knows the schools inside and out. [Brownell] has years of experience behind her, and springs such a wealth of knowledge, and [Clough] has such interesting budgetary experience," she said. "It's a great pool of candidates, but you can't slight one over the other. We're still probing, though, and we still have bridges to cross. We will be diligent, and do the best we can for our school."