Dr. Michael Zapantis, retiring Superintendent of the Ashburnham Westminster Regional School District, told the School Committee that he would be willing to stay on as our Interim Superintendent.
It’s been a tough spring for the school system and the School Committee. First of all, Dr. Zapantis, who has done a tremendous job as Superintendent these past 8 years, and is both well-liked and well-respected, announced his retirement, and a Search Committee was formed in January to find his replacement. Then, while this was going on, the School Budget hit a ‘perfect storm’ of depleted Stabilization Funds (the E&D fund), cuts to state Chapter 70 Aid of nearly $400,000, and more state aid cuts possible that would have resulted in a revenue shortfall of as much as $1.2MM, with corresponding catastrophic cuts to the educational system.
The national and local economic outlook only heightened the sense of imminent financial freefall, as an override of anything close to $1.2MM was considered nearly impossible to pass given the current 25% ‘unemployment plus under-employment’ rate in Westminster, with Ashburnham no doubt in the same boat. Then, the leading candidate for Superintendent dropped out of contention, accepting a position at another school system (Lenox, MA), and the two remaining candidates both fell short, one lacking experience and the other simply not considered a good fit. The School Committee voted last week to reopen the search, and to find an interim replacement for Dr. Zapantis in the meantime. That was perhaps the low point for the schools.
Then it started to turn around. The state came through with more money than anticipated, particularly in aid for Regional Transportation--for this we owe some thanks to Lew Evangelidis, who was instrumental in insuring cuts to regional transportation aid would not be greater than cuts to Chapter 70 aid. Then, it turns out that the spending freeze implemented in the district has had its desired effect, and the stabilization fund has built back up, currently containing about $550,000, of which $315,000 can conservatively be estimated to be unencumbered (not due to be spent) by next fall, making that money available as well.
Then the negotiations with the teachers’ union have apparently been successful, as our teachers have also recognized the gravity of the financial situation and agreed to as yet unannounced terms, but terms that are said to be quite conservative. For instance, in the budget the salary increases are budgeted at 0%. The school was also able to save money due to retirements, as more highly paid teachers left the district, to be replaced by new teachers with less seniority and experience, and consequently, smaller paychecks. This too saved the district nearly $300,000. All these positive developments resulted in a deficit of ‘just’ $366,000 between both towns in order to have level educational services with last year—the overrides needed are $201,000 for Westminster and $165,000 for Ashburnham, numbers that are much more manageable. If the overrides pass in both towns, the services provided by the school system will be ‘level’ with last year—not necessarily the same, but even.
Things continued to look up during the Westminster town meeting, as Dr. Zapantis, addressing his last Westminster Town Meeting, received a warm welcome accompanied by a standing ovation. I’m sure that made him happy, but I would bet that seeing his override request pass Town Meeting overwhelmingly made him feel even better—I think there were one or two votes against the override, but the other 165 people in attendance voted for it. It was at that time that I turned and said to Jen, “too bad he won’t be around to help pass the override in the towns, because that’s the hard part”. Now it turns out he might be after all.
The School Committee meeting Tuesday evening was a quick but significant one, starting with the committee immediately going into executive session, where school committee members were informed of Mike Zapantis' offer to stay on as interim, something the executive group of the school committee had learned a few days prior. The committee obviously regards this as a very positive development. The negotiations to allow Dr. Zapantis to stay on will take place in executive session, and are likely to involve rules and hours of work. For instance, there are bound to be rules regarding how long you can be retired before you can come back to work (it's probably 60 days or something like that), and since Dr. Zapantis was planning to retire, he might not want to continue working the grueling 70-80 hours per week he puts in now. There are even positives to that, as if Mike works less hours it could provide opportunities internally for other people to essentially have professional development on the job. Whatever the terms are that need worked out, it seems likely that the School Committee and Dr. Zapantis will come to agreement as they both have the same goal--what is best for the Ashburnham Westminster Regional School District.
Although it isn’t definite that Dr. Zapantis is staying on, it’s certainly a hopeful development, and very gracious of him to make this offer--retirement after a career in the public schools has much to recommend it. As Dave Christianson said, "I can't think of a better situation than replacing Mike with Mike. It's turned a bad situation into a good one." He also mused that tomorrow is Mike's retirement party, which is interesting.
Besides lending stability to the district in a time of financial turbulence throughout schools across Massachusetts, Dr. Zapantis’ offer, if accepted, also gives the School Committee some breathing room in their search for his replacement. Assuming all the details are worked out, this puts our school district in a much stronger position for hiring a new Superintendent. This time around the hiring process was made considerably more difficult by the school district’s financial straits. Now, particularly if the overrides pass, the district is in much better shape than previously thought, and the School Committee can wait until fall to restart the search, if they wish, so that there will be different candidates to interview (on the other hand, it seems most Superintendent candidates would be available right after the school year ends). Regardless of when the search begins again, if Dr. Zapantis were to stay on in an interim role, it would certainly be helpful to the school system’s finances, morale, stability, and the ongoing search for his replacement.
Dr. Zapantis was instrumental in forming the Ashburnham Westminster Foundation for Academic Excellence, a private non-profit foundation for the specific purpose of using private funds to supplement academic excellence in AWRSD’s schools. The Foundation’s current round of grants, the Super-Z Grants, are named in his honor.
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