Mehlville school board seeks leader who embodies qualities Ridder has

Forum scheduled next week on search for superintendent

By Gloria Lloyd

The Mehlville Board of Education has found its perfect superintendent.

But there’s only one problem: He’s interim Superintendent Norm Ridder, who only plans to stay at the helm of the school district for this school year, before the district finds his permanent replacement.

When board members listed the qualities they hope to see in Mehlville’s next superintendent at their fall retreat, Samantha Stormer succinctly summed up their ideas.

“When I look at our next superintendent, I look at Dr. Ridder,” she said. “I want him.”

“I’ll make the motion,” board President Ron Fedorchak joked.

Among the many qualities board members listed for their rock-star superintendent candidate are: A humble “servant leader” of integrity who is deadline- and data-driven, strategic and knowledgeable about continuous improvement, and a collaborative leader who holds high standards in academics and can work well within Mehlville’s existing administrative team — but also has the charisma to be the public face of the district.

In other words, someone exactly like Ridder.

Since Ridder is not staying beyond this year, however, the superintendent search, conducted by former Webster Groves Superintendent Brent Underwood, a consultant for the Missouri School Boards’ Association, or MSBA, is underway, with applications due Dec. 12.

District residents can weigh in with their own thoughts about what Mehlville needs in its next superintendent through a superintendent-search forum set for 7 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Nottelmann Auditorium and through an online survey, open until Monday, which can be found at the bottom of this story.

One of the questions that community members could help answer is whether Mehlville should be looking for a sitting superintendent or for current assistant superintendents, in Missouri or outside of Missouri.

Although several board members did not want to rule out hiring a talented assistant superintendent, board member Kathleen Eardley said she believes that the person would have had to run a district before to succeed in Mehlville.

“We almost need somebody who’s managed some size of a district before they come in and take the reins of 10,000 students,” she said.

When board members posted the job opening for the new superintendent, they set the salary parameters at $175,000 to $200,000.

A Call review of superintendent salaries for the 2013-2014 school year found that Mehlville’s superintendent salary of $190,000 ranked 21st among all 524 districts in the state, mostly behind districts in the St. Louis area, and tied with several other St. Louis districts that also pay roughly $190,000.

Mehlville board members and residents have top-notch expectations for their next superintendent.

However, a disparity in salary and expectations could be a problem, board member Larry Felton noted.

“If we’ve got champagne taste, then we can’t go with a beer salary,” he said.

Although board Secretary Lori Trakas defended Mehlville’s salary, Fedorchak noted, “You saw what a four-high school, 20,000-student district did to us.”

Former Superintendent Eric Knost was paid $190,000, but left for the Rockwood School District, where he makes $235,000.

However, the Fox School District bucked the trend of rising salaries last month when it hired its next superintendent, Rockwood Executive Director of Secondary Education Jim Wipke. Wipke will start at $175,000, with only a two-year contract.

That’s nearly $100,000 less than Fox was paying former Superintendent Dianne Critchlow, who had the third-highest salary in the state, $267,000, before she retired Oct. 31.

Underwood, a former Mehlville administrator, also conducted Fox’s search.

Board members also believe that the salary plays into whether Mehlville will ever have a long-serving superintendent again, or whether the district will forever be a stepping stone to other opportunities.

“I think the next superintendent should be somebody who’ll be here for eight years, not just stop and move on,” Trakas said. “We have somebody stay for a little bit and then they leave, so we never get that continuity.”

“I don’t think we will ever have that kind of superintendent here,” Fedorchak said. “This is a great stepping stone — it’s like the (St. Louis University) coaching job.

“Somebody sees that great success, and a big-time program will come and scoop them away because they can pay them more … And we want that. We want to be hiring energetic, visionary leaders that are attractive to other school districts.”

Since Ridder has overseen a variety of school districts, public and private, in three states, the board looked to him for advice on what he sees as key qualities for the next Mehlville leader.

The Mehlville board should be looking for a leader with a strong sense of family, since someone who does not understand the importance of family will have a difficult time understanding the community and leading the district, Ridder said.

Felton added his own wish list: The district needs an “innovative and adaptable servant leader” from a diverse district who can serve as the face and voice of Mehlville, someone whose “word is their bond.”

“In terms of leadership style, I don’t want a top-down manager … I want someone that achieves through the work of others,” he said. “I want someone who has vision — who sees where the puck’s going to be, not where it is now.”

The board should seek out someone who can balance his or her visions for the district with the “very conservative financial restraint” of Chief Financial Officer Marshall Crutcher, Fedorchak said — someone who is “seeing things that other people don’t see and having that vision, but working with Marshall to keep the restraint.”

The district has talented assistant superintendents and administrators, and the last thing it needs is someone who’s going to “run off” the district’s current administrators by taking a “‘this is my show and this is the way we’re going to come in and do it,’ type of attitude,” Fedorchak added.

Ridder agreed that a selfish attitude is the last thing Mehlville needs in a superintendent.

“You know the biggest thing that works against a superintendent?” Ridder added. “Ego. Mehlville needs a very humble person who can listen and hear, rather than try to control and impress. I really think you need to be looking at that core: Is this a humble person or not?”