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Dover-Sherborn

School boards find new leader close at hand

The superintendent of Dover and Sherborn’s school systems, Valerie G. Spriggs, knew her assistant, Steven Bliss, was itching for the top job, and she knew he’d be good at it.

But with a year left in her contract, Spriggs also knew that the colleague she worked so well with, and who had a “terrific” relationship with all three school boards in the two-town district, might be tempted to take a job as superintendent in another community rather than wait to see what she would do.

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So in collaboration with the Dover-Sherborn Regional School Committee, Dover School Committee, and Sherborn School Committee, Spriggs and Bliss came up with a plan they say can become a model for administrative transitions in other districts.

Last month, the three committees appointed Bliss to take over as superintendent at the end of the school year, with Spriggs officially retiring but working into next year as a part-time consultant to lend a hand where needed.

By handing the reins to a man who has already spent four years in the system and has the confidence of the school boards, the district has avoided the time-consuming and costly process of launching a superintendent search, according to Shelley Poulsen, chairwoman of the Dover-Sherborn Regional School Committee.

The process of finding the right person who is able to work well with three school committees is particularly challenging, Poulsen said, and she lauded the roles played by Spriggs and Bliss.

“We were elated that both were feeling the time was right for them to make a move,” she said.

Poulsen said the district and Bliss negotiated a one-year contract providing a salary of $175,000, about $25,000 less than what Spriggs would have been making, with the understanding that if things go as expected his pay would be increased at the end of the year. The consulting fee for Spriggs will be less than what she would have made in the final year of her contract.

“They really problem-solved to make this work, it took some real creativity,” Poulsen said.

Spriggs is adamant that she is stepping away and Bliss is taking over completely, and that she will be keeping “a very low profile,” without an office or even a desk in the administration department.

“He will be the superintendent,” she said. “It will be his team.”

Spriggs and Bliss said one area where she is likely to lend a hand is contract negotiations. All of the school system’s contracts are set to expire at the end of next year, they said, so Spriggs may assist in negotiating with nonteacher unions, giving Bliss an opportunity to fully concentrate on reaching an agreement with the teachers.

Bliss said when he was hired four years ago, the high-performing district was in search of someone who would stabilize the assistant superintendent position, which had seen a lot of turnover.

“We had pretty candid conversations,” he said. “They were clearly thinking strategically of hiring someone who would be staying for a few years with an eye to the future.”

Bliss, who had worked as an assistant principal in Southbridge and a principal in Sturbridge, said the district’s forward thinking has made the transition as easy as possible.

The smooth change at the top is particularly beneficial this year because of two other key turnovers in the small district, which has one elementary school in each town, a regional middle school and regional high school.

Dover-Sherborn High School headmaster Denise Lonergan is retiring at the end of the school year, and Dover-Sherborn Middle School’s headmaster, Frederick Randall, unexpectedly resigned his position in December, citing personal reasons.

Spriggs said she was able to quickly fill Randall’s position by promoting assistant headmaster Scott Kellett.

“We were lucky to have talent in-house at the middle school,” Spriggs said. “Scott is an excellent educator, and was a very high-profile assistant.” Kellett had taught math at the middle school before taking a job as an assistant principal in Sharon, and was headmaster of Nichols Middle School in Middleborough before taking the assistant headmaster position at the Dover-Sherborn school 2½ years ago.

Kellett and a search committee have started the process of hiring an assistant at the middle school, and Spriggs and Bliss said their focus will be on finding the right person to fill Lonergan’s position at the high school. Both said it won’t be easy, noting that Lonergan has 33 years of experience in the district, with 11 as headmaster.

“Those are huge shoes to fill,” Spriggs said, and with no apparent in-house candidate, the administration is in the process of writing a job description and getting ready to advertise the opening.

“We are going to cast a very large net for that position,” Bliss said. “There is a real desire by the faculty, staff, and school committees to ensure that the person will offer longevity.”

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.
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