The Blaine County School District board of trustees approved a three-year contract Tuesday for Assistant Superintendent Lonnie Barber to become district superintendent on July 1.
Barber's succession to the job followed an announcement by Superintendent Jim Lewis at Tuesday's school board meeting that he will retire a year earlier than previously announced. Lewis said in May that he intended to remain superintendent through the 2009-2010 school year.
The only explanation offered by Lewis at the meeting was that recent public discussion has indicated a need for change and "it needs to happen before the new school year."
Lewis' retirement becomes effective Aug. 31. He will serve as administration transition coordinator from July 1 until then.
Barber was hired two years ago as the school board's intended replacement for Lewis upon Lewis' retirement.
Approval of the contract to Barber came a month before two newly elected school board members will replace incumbents Alexandra Sundali and Kim Nilsen. Paul Bates, vice president of the Wood River Middle School Parent Teacher Association, defeated Sundali in May's school board elections, while Steve Guthrie, a Middle School PTA co-president, defeated Nilsen.
Neither Bates nor Guthrie attended Tuesday's school board meeting. Both men were critical during the campaign of the process used to select Barber for the job, saying the public was not involved enough in that process. Since being elected, Bates has said he's not convinced Barber was the best candidate for the job.
Bates said Thursday that he was surprised by the school board's action.
"A month ago, what the district said was one thing, and now something's changed," Bates said. "The timing was surprising. That might suggest conspiracy theory, but it's not my place to go there.
"I don't think what they've done particularly inspires public trust," he said. "No one called me to ask me to be involved. It just strikes me that they don't want to explore what I had to say."
In spite of their concerns, both Bates and Guthrie said they will try to support Barber as superintendent.
"I was surprised that the decision has been made, but I think now we just need to get down to business," said Guthrie. "I would have liked to have had some input on that, but I think that was just one of the decisions that was going to come out of the existing school board."
The motion to extend the superintendent contract to Barber was made by Trustee Mari Beth Matthews. The board approved the motion 5-0.
Board members were steadfast in their appreciation of Lewis, who has served 10 years as the district's superintendent.
"We've had a decade of tremendous leadership," said Board Vice Chairwoman Julie Dahlgren.
"We're very lucky to have had Jim Lewis as our superintendent," said Sundali, the board chairwoman. "I am honored to have been part of his life."
The school board was also united in its support of Barber.
"This wasn't just a podunk search for a superintendent, this was a world-wide search," said Nilsen. "I am so grateful that we had the vision two years ago to look for and find Dr. Barber."
"I have seen him the past two years grow to take over as superintendent," said Trustee Daniel Parke. "I am very glad for my children's sake that he will be our superintendent."
Lewis said he previously advised Barber "that being superintendent is not a popularity contest."
"You have to make a lot of tough decisions," Lewis said. "You show me a superintendent that wins the popularity contest and I'll show you a mediocre school district."
Sundali said recent "negative press" against Barber was unfair and made by "people who are not familiar with the process."
She said Thursday that if Bates and Guthrie wanted to be involved in the superintendent succession then they should have attended the meeting.
"They weren't left out of the process," Sundali said. "For one thing, they don't know the process. They didn't attend Tuesday's meeting and there was a lot going on. They owe it to their constituents to be there to learn. If they want to be part of the process, then they should be here.
"This was not some sort of a sneaky move," she said. "What changed was the candidates for change said they wanted change."
Terry Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org