Editorial: Replacing leader food for thought

The news that Sweet Home Schools Supt. Larry Horton will retire next June 30 isn’t a surprise, and it’s not welcome.

That’s because we believe Dr. Horton and his staff have provided generally fine leadership for the district during his tenure since arriving from Oakridge nine years ago, and he may be difficult to replace.

While Horton’s actual departure is nearly a year away, it’s not too early to start thinking about what kind of candidate the district School Board should look for to replace him €“ particularly since it looks like schools statewide are going to be facing more tough times.

Although every leader has his or her detractors, we think Horton has shown the vision and smarts necessary to bring a lot of positives to a somewhat impoverished, backwater district like Sweet Home. In testimony to that, while richer districts throughout the state have already had to slash staff and programs over the past two years due to the economy and falling revenues, Sweet Home has thus far been able to maintain nearly all of its personnel and educational offerings.

We understand that people have beefs about what happens in our schools. We have a few here, though this isn’t the time to trot them out. But the character and qualifications of the next superintendent will be critical to keeping things generally good in Sweet Home. Therefore, when the board gets around to formalizing its search for Horton’s replacement, we suggest it consider the following:

– Find someone who is open with the public.

Horton has been relatively transparent with the press and the public during his tenure, something that wasn’t necessarily the case with his predecessor, Bill Hampton, who tended to play his cards close to his vest. Since this is a public school district, supported by and serving local taxpayers, we think transparency is a good thing.

Though there are certainly things that administrators can’t talk about openly, many public administrators tend to play games more than they need to and that’s not a good thing when you’re dealing with the people you serve. Horton, for the most part, hasn’t done that and we should appreciate that.

– Find someone who understands the particular needs of this school district.

Though there are certainly many residents of the Sweet Home community who realize the value of education in our daily lives, there are also those who don’t. Their kids often have spotty school attendance. They don’t get support from the adults at home. Many of them do not do well in school. Some drop out.

Horton has taken a particular interest in these youngsters. He understands that not everyone is going to go to college and he understands the value of practical skills for those who aren’t moving on to higher-level education.

He has advocated the necessity for a strong shop program in the community as well as strong academics.

He has supported the founding of a Forestry Club €“ it’s almost unbelievable that that program was discontinued in the first place in a community like ours that is so tied to forestry €“ and he’s been supportive of other programs that provide incentives for students to stay in school €“ athletics, music and other arts programs, mentoring and peer support and leadership activities, and other hands-on learning and character-development activities.

The next superintendent should have a track record of support for these types of activities. In this day and age, and in our community, they are particularly important.

– Find someone who is fiscally conservative and creative. Horton and his staff’s forward thinking in previous budgets has preserved our district from some of the financial woes others are experiencing, but we can all see that more tough times are ahead.

We don’t have the benefit of a student population that could generate more revenue to the district €“ rightly or wrongly €“ in the forms of English-as-a-second-language and other “needs” that have turned on the faucet of state money for some

communities. Our rural students are getting the short end of the stick from the state, which has chosen to focus its energies on others. We have to be creative.

Our next superintendent needs to be someone who can think outside the box and lead the teachers and classified employees to do the same. If things don’t turn around economically, this will be crucial in the near future.

– Find someone who is supportive of PBS and who can keep moving the district toward educational excellence. There is little question that the Positive Behavior System employed in all our schools is having some good effects.

Children are getting an understanding of the need to act responsibly and respect others €“ whether or not that behavior is modeled at home. The number of referrals, the number of fights, problems with bullying, etc. are down substantially. That doesn’t mean there are no problems, but it’s pretty clear to most students that proper behavior has its rewards and improper behavior doesn’t. Much of that is due to PBS.

There’s still room for improvement. But a lot of progress has been made. Horton’s administration has backed efforts to improve reading and writing scores. Youngsters’ attention is being focused on college more so than in the past, and that appears to be paying off too in increased interest among junior high and high school students in going on to higher education.

There are wrinkles. Students complain about school policies that create problems for them. The economic difficulties are forcing cutbacks that no one wants to see.

But as we said in the beginning, Dr. Horton’s legacy is one that we don’t want to see deteriorate. We’ve appreciated his service and, as his tenure draws to a close this next school year, we hope the board will pull out all of the stops to find someone who will be the kind of fit that he has been for the Sweet Home School District.