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McKenzie Robinson | SBJ

A Conversation With ... Matt Pearce

Superintendent, Republic School District

Posted online

Over the past few years, Republic’s student population has grown around 5%, but officials have said in the coming years they are expecting 10% growth. How are you scaling operations to meet that demand?
We’ve got a new early childhood center going up, and that’s going to allow us to pull some preschool classrooms out of elementary buildings. The central office is going to move in the old early childhood building, and that will create considerable space. With those classrooms, we’re hoping that we can bridge the gap with growth until it’s time to build a new building. Right now, we’re just a little bit over 5,000 [students]. We do partner with the city and about once a quarter; we have our central office team and their team get together, and they share with us some new things that are happening as far as building permits and known projects. We have a good collaboration. We even have a mathematical formula that we use when we know that there’s going to be 100 homes in a subdivision; we can roughly estimate how many students that’s going to turn into.

What about staffing challenges? What are you experiencing now, and what are you planning for?
Generally speaking, if it’s an elementary position or a nonspecialized high school position or middle school position, we have applicants. If we get into special education or if we get into upper-level math or upper-level science, sometimes those are a little bit harder to fill. For our noncertified staff, yes, it is getting a little bit harder to fill those positions because we’re competing with all these places that are maybe paying $14, $15, $16 an hour to start. While we don’t pay quite that, we do have benefits and other perks that are good but may not necessarily be what the job seekers are wanting right now.

Springfield Public Schools had to alter its school schedule and bus routes this school year due to driver shortages. Has Republic experienced anything similar?
We’ve really since about the middle of the fall been watching those numbers, and anytime that we’ve got somebody leaving us, we always try to make sure we’ve got one or two, three people that we can have as a pool to bring in for interviews. It has not been easy. We’ve really had to do some different things that we’re not used to doing. One of the things that we’re trying out is attendance and safety incentives for custodial and transportation staff. If you hit the attendance marks and you are safe at work and there are no concerns, then there’s some incentives in pay on a quarterly basis.

Health experts warned the pandemic would have an impact on students’ mental health. What have you seen, and how have you addressed that?
We have added a high school site-based clinician, and we’ve added two social workers in elementary and a secondary social worker. What that’s allowed us to do is to see kids who might not otherwise be able to get in for an appointment for 45, 60, 90 days and take care of their needs. I’m not saying that we’ve hit everybody’s needs with that across the board, but the students who we really have concerns about and who really need that support, we’ve got that for them. Overall, we have seen an increase for the need for those types of services. One of the things that we’re looking at is how does that look different in what’s called the “Great Resignation” time. People are tired and maybe wanting to move on or do something different or retire early. What can we do as far as staff wellness, mental health, whatever it might be, to encourage them that this is a great place to be and stick with us and do great things for kids? Same thing with students, as well, making sure that we’re meeting them where they are and we’re fulfilling their needs. We’re just starting to scratch the surface on those items.

On the “Great Resignation,” a survey from the National Superintendents Roundtable found two-thirds of superintendents considered quitting their jobs during the 2020-21 school year. You are in your second year as superintendent; what has this time been like for you, and what leadership lessons have you gained?
Ask questions of colleagues and of people who have been superintendents before. Relying on our central office team, and not just me, to make decisions. When you have a good team and you can communicate well, that makes a big difference. When you make a decision, I’ll get emails from somebody saying thank you and I’ll get emails from somebody that’s very upset. Trying to balance all that and at the end of the day, making sure we’re doing the best thing we can for students and staff for learning. That’s the guidepost. That’s getting a little bit harder to do with the political environment that we’re seeing.

Matt Pearce can be reached at matt.pearce@republicschools.org.

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