Since the announcement of Dr. Withers, current Superintendent, to retire, I knew we were facing a significant decision. Over the months, the board hired a consulting group to advise us on how to begin our outreach to district employees and the community, asking what characteristics are you looking for in the next Superintendent.
There were 30 plus community and district meetings held, to gather information for help create an emerging profile. In April, the consultants provided 33 applicants for the position. All 7 board members read and studied all 33 applications. There were many qualified applicants. In a closed session , each application was discussed at length using the profile put together based on community input. Atlantic Research Partners (ARP), the consultant group, sat in on the interview, gave input and advice, but did not influence the outcome. After that discussion the Board chose 8 candidates to interview as semi-finalists. To protect the privacy of the candidates, those 8 semi-finalists were never announced publicly. It was significant to me, Dr. Cunningham was one of only two candidates to receive a unanimous 7 votes to be included in the semi-finalist round of interviews. The other candidate, did not move on to the final 3.
Once the final candidates were announced publicly with a short biography provided by the candidate, board members had the opportunity to call references provided by the candidates and contacts not provided by the candidates, to discover as much background as possible. Based on information received from this confidential process and shared between all board members in a closed session, Dr. Cunningham’s ability to problem solve and direct the district, helped her rise above the others. In short, her references were stellar.
Each finalist spent one day in Salt Lake formally interviewing for the position of superintendent. It was an extremely long day for them, but provided opportunities to meet and talk with employees and community members. It also gave me an opportunity to talk with each one, and watch firsthand how the candidates interacted. Each candidate toured three schools, met and spoke with staff, administration, parents and teachers, met with a group of diverse community leaders, met with different professional groups within our district. Each candidate had a 90 minute open interview with the board during which they answered a set questions put together by the board’s consultant based on community input and approved by the board. Each candidate provided a draft of a 90 day transition plan during the interview. And finally, each candidate had a community town hall forum in which they answered questions from the audience.
After each meeting, the consultants collected feedback from community members in attendance. The board had the opportunity to review all feedback as well as receive feedback from constituents, friends, and district employees. I made phone calls, emailed and reached out gathering thoughts and opinions about the candidates. I carefully read and weighed every email, every conversation, every bit of feedback I received. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of the input. The feedback I received was weighted heavily for Alexa Cunningham, based on interaction and information gleaned about her career. Krish Mohip, was a distant second. Alexa has experience as a current, and well respected superintendent in Arizona. I believe that Krish’s experience level pales in comparison. Alexa has experience with a legislature that consistently funds education at the lowest levels in the country (similar to Utah). Many of Krish’s responses with ideas for our district demonstrated that he is more accustomed to problem solving with money—not always an option in our district. Alexa currently serves in a district that is, minority majority, primarily Latino. The achievement gap continues to narrow in her district, and I believe she can provide leadership, innovation and inspire our employees to help our children succeed. Some were concerned that Alexa has less experience with elementary schools as her current district is a high school only district. But in my estimation, and based on conversations with references, Alexa has done a great job coordinating and communicating with the 6 elementary school districts and feed into her high school district. This is experience that our district can use right now. With Dr. Cunningham’s leadership, our elementary schools will benefit based on her experience and best practices to prepare elementary and middle school students to be successful in high school. With her high school experience she has already demonstrated her ability to work and succeed in preparing high school students for college and career. I believe Dr. Cunningham will be sensitive and have the much needed conversations about issues of race and poverty, about our children who are currently struggling with conditions outside of their own control and who so desperately need our help. I could not have supported Dr. Cunningham as our superintendent if I did not believe she would make these issues her priority. Based on her responses to board questions and community questions, public and private, Dr. Cunningham has the necessary skills to understand the issues in our district. In honoring the process, we have arrived at the best choice for the children of Salt Lake City. I am encouraged that all board members supported and voted in a public meeting to appoint Dr. Alexa Cunningham. With board support and Dr. Cunningham’s leadership, I am as optimistic about Salt Lake City School District’s future. Together, with the good people currently supporting and teaching our students and with our engaged and educated community, we are on a great path. There is much work to do, we have pressing issues and problems to solve. I am looking forward to being a part of the process and future for Salt Lake City School District.