A Back-to-School Chat with Supt. Daniel Gutekanst
Patch sat down with the Needham Public Schools administrator to discuss what's new for 2011-12.
The bags are packed, the lunches made, the nametags freshly printed and the rooms clean and ready to welcome kids back—today is the first day of school for Needham students.
To get ready for the big day, Patch met up with Needham Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Daniel Gutekanst earlier this week to talk about the what’s new for the 2011-12 school year. Along with providing an update on summer building projects at Newman Elementary School and Pollard Middle School, Gutekanst talked about his staff and the work ahead in the coming year.
How is the turnover this year—do you have more or less new staff members than in past years? It’s pretty typical. We have about 45 new teachers this year, and a few new administrators [including Pollard Principal Lisa Chen, Needham High School Assistant Principal Alison Coubrough Argentieri and Newman Elementary School Assistant Principal Greg Bayse].
I believe that leadership is key and we need to spend a lot of time looking for great leaders because they help make things happen for kids. We also do the same for our teachers. Teachers are the most important people we hire. So we spent a lot of time this summer and last spring searching through resumes, reading applications, interviewing folks and really taking the time to make sure that we have the right people in front of our kids. That’s a long process, it’s a labor of love, but it’s the most important work we do besides ensuring students’ safety.
Does the district have any major new programs or initiatives launching with the start of the school year? We’re going to continue with many of the same initiatives that we began last year. We will continue our bullying intervention prevention efforts. We’re working a lot on our student reports cards and our standards-based instruction, really trying to fine-tune and pull together our curriculum for grades K-12. That’s ongoing and important work.
A big picture thing we’re going to try to tackle this year is to really think about how we can provide an appropriate and sustainable special education program for our students. We need to look for some ways to keep our costs down while providing appropriate services for our kids.
What are some areas in which you might be able to reduce costs? We took advantage of some federal stimulus money and bought a fleet of six new vans. The vans will provide transportation for our special education students in town. We used to contract with someone to do that. We used to bid for services but we only got one bidder; every year it was the same company, so they charged whatever they wanted. We thought, here’s an opportunity—with this federal stimulus money, we can buy these vans.
It turns out that by getting into the ‘bus’ business, even after we pay for health insurance, fuel, overhead, maintenance on the vehicles and training, we save the equivalent of a new teacher. So we decided to get into the bus business and now I think we are going to provide even better services for our special education students because it will be Needham Public School employees [operating the vans]. They’ll be local, and they’ll have a better connection with families in the community.
We’ve undertaken a study to look at whether there are other opportunities like that to provide either the same or better quality of service in a more cost-efficient way.
Will the six vans just be used for transportation of special education students? As a double bonus, our athletic teams that are smaller, such as the golf team, will be able to use them. Before, we had to rent yellow buses for them, and yellow buses have a four-hour minimum [for rental]. Now we have our own drivers, we have the vans, and we can use them for that and save money. Park and Recreation and the Senior Center also can use them—we’ll charge them for the cost of the driver and some of the maintenance of the vehicles. We can put these vans to use now to provide even more programming for the community and save a few dollars. They’re here for our students, but on weekends and in-between hours, they’ll be available for others to use.
Boston magazine recently ranked Needham 31st among 135 public school districts in Massachusetts. What do you think about that ranking? I think they have it wrong, I think Needham Schools should be No. 1 on Boston magazine’s list. I’m proud of not only where we are but where we can go, and that may not necessarily correspond with Boston Magazine’s rankings, but that’s OK. From my perspective, we’re No. 1.
What is your favorite part of a new school year? I love it when I see the school buses rolling because I know those yellow buses are a prelude to the yellow leaves that will soon fall. It’s a signal of the season changing. It’s great to see teachers in their classrooms setting up and the energy and excitement they bring.