Patricia A. Lally, appointed last week as Holbrook’s new superintendent of schools, enters a district facing many unanswered questions — about regionalization, whether to build a new school and for which grades, how to raise achievement, and how school and town officials will get along after a tense year.
Barbara Davis, School Committee chairwoman, said in an interview that Lally’s colleagues in Tewksbury, where she is assistant superintendent, praised her ability to make difficult decisions in a “non-contentious” manner. One of her strengths lies in her ability to build consensus, Davis said.
“I am confident in the decision that we made,” she said. “Not that it was an easy decision. We had two good candidates.”
The committee chose Lally in a 4-0 vote last Thursday, with member John Callahan absent. She is expected to start July 1, pending contract negotiations, and will succeed Joseph Baeta, who accepted the superintendent’s post in Norton.
The decision means co-finalist Janice Rotella, director of curriculum and instruction for the Wareham schools, will remain there for now. Rotella said she still aspires to become a superintendent but has no other applications pending.
In Holbrook, the coming months will likely be filled with more debate over the future of the school district, which has entered the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s planning process for school construction funding. The town is considering four grade configurations: grades 6-12, 7-12, K-12, and K-8.
Because many residents believe the junior-senior high school needs replacement the most, the K-8 configuration implies that Holbrook would make other arrangements for grades 9-12, namely, forming a regional district with another town or paying tuition to send students to other schools. Both of the latter alternatives have proved controversial.
Lally will need to jump into the building issue “first and foremost,” according to Vincent Hayward, principal of Holbrook Junior-Senior High School and a member of the search committee. He said he is impressed with her background, which includes time as a teacher and principal.
Asked about her view of the building and regionalization questions, Lally said that although a K-12 school would be unique in Massachusetts, the state building authority is always looking for new models that can be successful.
“There are great options out there, and I think it’s worth exploring all of them,” she said.
Regionalization is a community decision and “isn’t necessarily the first thing I would pick,” she said, but added that she would keep an open mind.
Lally (inset), a former teacher of foreign languages, English, and social studies, was principal of Tewksbury Memorial High School from 2007 until last year, when she was named assistant superintendent of the Tewksbury district. Holbrook’s enrollment of 1,238 students is less than a third of Tewksbury’s 3,805.
In a video of the Holbrook School Committee decision posted online by Holbrook Community Access and Media, School Committee member Beth Tolson said Lally was a key figure in the planning of Tewksbury’s new high school, which opened last fall. She also praised the school’s achievement under Lally; it was a Level 3 school in the state’s rating system when she became principal and is now a Level 1 school, Tolson said.
Level 1 is the highest on a 1-to-5 scale. Holbrook’s junior-senior high has a Level 3 rating, which places it among the lowest 20 percent of schools serving the same grades.
School Committee members also said that during their visit to Tewksbury, Lally’s colleagues spoke consistently about her communication skills, her ability to bring people together, and the respect she had earned in the district.
Communication has been an issue of late in Holbrook. The School Committee and Board of Selectmen held a joint meeting April 29 that one selectman said was their first joint meeting in at least two years.
Differing views on regionalization and the building project came to a head last August, when the selectmen voted, along with Avon selectmen, to apply for a joint regionalization study grant without consulting the School Committee.
Despite the recent discord, Lally, who lives in Arlington, said she found a “good sense of camaraderie and collegiality” when she visited Holbrook. The town’s size, location, and sense of community attracted her, she said, and she was looking for an opportunity to use her skills in a district’s top job.
“It’s very thrilling,” she said.
Rotella, the other Holbrook finalist, said she had been attracted to Holbrook’s small-town feel and what she described as the cohesiveness of the School Department.
“I have never seen a district where the hopes and dreams and goals of the administrators were so echoed by the students,” she said.
School Committee members said Rotella had been creative with limited resources in Wareham, written numerous grants, and brought new programs to the district.