DECATUR – Decatur's new superintendent, Paul Fregeau, sees the community's visible support of its students as crucial to their success.
“You can see it from the survey data and what you see in the newspaper, what you see in the news and online, there's a lot of community support for our schools, so I think we can leverage that to help kids," said Fregeau, who comes to Decatur from the North Kansas City School District, where he is an assistant superintendent.
North Kansas City has more than 19,300 students and 3,100 employees with a budget of $269 million, according to the district's website.
"There's a lot of opportunity here for improvement, and a lot of things we can do better, so I like that. And, I'm from Illinois, born and raised. All those things are reasons I thought it was a great opportunity to come here and help the kids of Decatur," he added.
Fregeau’s contract is for three years, with a salary of $197,000.
Decatur school board members expressed enthusiasm for Fregeau after a 7-0 vote to approve his hiring, noting his experience, drive and priorities.
Fred Spannaus said he knew the process of hiring a new superintendent now, a week before the election, was a topic of concern and that he, at least, had wanted to wait to make the decision until after the election, when potentially four new board members will be in place.
“I think it would have increased the respect for the current board,” Spannaus said. “Please don't take out your unhappiness on our new superintendent.”
Dan Oakes called Fregeau “an excellent catch.”
“He's got a plan, and he's got interest,” Oakes said. “If we'd waited, we could have lost him.”
Board President Sherri Perkins said she was pleased with the decision to hire Fregeau, who also was superintendent of the Cass Midway School District in Cleveland, Mo.
“We know the district and community is ready to move forward,” she said. “We feel confident that Dr. Fregeau will deliver a promising future and we're excited for him to get started.”
Earlier in the day, there was confusion about Fregeau's availability for media questions after the meeting and for interviews later this week. That confusion included a request from the district for questions to be submitted in advance of the news conference that followed the board meeting.
Several local media outlets, including the Herald & Review, requested a conference call with Perkins prior to the board meeting, but district spokeswoman Maria Robertson said she was not available.
After the board meeting, Fregeau and Perkins each made a statement during a press conference, but the news media was not allowed to ask questions at that time. Fregeau later spoke with the Herald & Review after the meet-and-greet with community members.
Union presidents Suzanne Kreps of the Decatur Education Association, and Paula Busboom of the Decatur Federation of Teaching Assistants, were unhappy with what they said was the lack of transparency from the board during the process.
“I just believe that, if you look at the other communities that have hired a superintendent, Champaign introduced their three final candidates to the community and Maroa-Forsyth brought their three back,” Kreps said. “Two completely different districts and it was more out in the open. Some of these board members ran (for office) on transparency, and it's been silent. Why?”
DEA and DFTA presidents decry lack of transparency in supt search process.— Valerie Wells (@modgirlreporter) March 28, 2017
“The last superintendent search, we wanted transparency,” Busboom said. “And we didn't get transparency then, either. I think that whole feeling of tonight is, it's so secretive and the part about not being able to ask the superintendent questions, and then 'yes, you can,' and 'no, you can't,' and we don't know information ahead of time.
"It's almost like they're trying to hide something. Are they trying to protect him from the community or is the board trying to hide or protect themselves? I don't feel this is sending a good message for the superintendent. Whoever's calling the shots here, whether it's the superintendent or it's the board, it doesn't speak well for our community.”
Former Superintendent Lisa Taylor resigned last April to take a job as high school principal in Heyworth, where she has since become superintendent. Assistant superintendents Bobbi Williams and Michael Dugan were named interim co-superintendents, and the Decatur school board hired search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates at its Oct. 25 meeting.
The search firm held meetings with employee unions, parent groups and community representatives in December to ask about issues and concerns in the district, as well as qualities people wanted to see in its new leader.
Bill Attea, a representative of the firm, told the Herald & Review last week there were 45 applicants, 32 of whom completed the process, from 15 states and the District of Columbia. After initial interviews by the search firm, five candidates were presented to the board as finalists to interview. One dropped out for family reasons, leaving two men and two women.
All the school board candidates were invited to observe Fregeau's interview. Kendall Briscoe, Beth Creighton and Beth Nolan declined. In a joint statement, the women said, “Though we appreciated this invitation, we did not believe observing a second interview would be useful or helpful to this process.”
Board candidate Al Scheider did attend and was pleased with what he saw.
“I was very happy after I left the meeting,” Scheider said. “It perked my spirits up about (working with him) if I'm on the board. I'm really looking forward to it.”
He added that he is especially pleased that the vote was unanimous.
“After how divisive the board has been, that really impressed me,” he said. “That, to me, is one of the most important things.”
Carson was also among the candidates who sat in on the interview with Fregeau and attended the meeting Tuesday night. He described the new superintendent as “phenomenal,” and expressed excitement that the board approved the hire unanimously.
“He seems to love what he does. He loves children, and his background says that he loves children,” Carson said. “He has fresh and innovative ideas, so I’m excited for our district.”
Speaking by phone Tuesday night, write-in candidate Janice Gavin said she was also in the interview with Carson and Scheider and came away with a positive opinion of the finalist.
“I was very impressed with his credentials and his answers to questions that I had,” she said, adding that she missed the board meeting because she had to work.
The meeting was well-attended, though most of the people there were district employees. A few parents were there as well. Amanda Albritton, who has three children at Garfield Montessori School, is cautiously optimistic.
“I feel like they made a whole lot of something out of nothing,” she said. “We don't really know anything about him. We weren't involved in the process beyond the meetings (with focus groups) in December. We haven't seen his resumé. We don't know anything. I'm not real confident, but I'm open to being impressed.”
Decatur NAACP Branch President Jeanelle Norman came away impressed after meeting Fregeau at the meet-and-greet and hearing him speak during the meeting.
She also appreciated the unanimous vote.
“A 7-0 vote, that’s significant, “she said. “When you speak the way he did, then you know there’s an interest not only in the school but the community as well.”
NAACP Decatur Branch President Jeanelle Norman: "I think it's an excellent choice + he's going to move district forward."— Allison Petty (@allison0512) March 29, 2017
Shanta Ricks, a district parent, and Melverta Wilkins, a grandparent, said the process was too secretive for their liking, but they hope the district will move forward.
“It was a little odd for them to do it that way,” Ricks said. “But they get to pick anyway. We don't get anything to say about it. We've got who we've got and we've got to move on.”
Keara Appleton, a sophomore at Eisenhower High School, said being there for the vote was interesting. “I like the fact that everybody came out with their own opinions and didn't hold back,” she said. “I think they made a good decision.”