Philipsburg-Osceola faces daunting task in finding replacement for superintendent Stephen Benson

The Philipsburg-Osceola school board is entering uncharted territory.

It has been more than 25 years since the school district has faced the daunting task of a full-on head hunt for a new superintendent. Now that the school board has decided not to renew the contract of Stephen Benson, which expires in June, board members now face a new challenge: Who will take his place?

P-O has had seven transitions in and out of the big office during that time. With the exception of Joseph Mainello in the mid-1980s, every superintendent already had been on staff and, if not the heir apparent, at least a presumed internal favorite. One even moved right next door to the administrative offices at North Lincoln Hill as assistant superintendent, prepared for his inevitable promotion.

But the current board might not be open to that this time. Board member Todd Jeffries said after voting on Benson’s contract that dismissing the superintendent was just the beginning of cleaning house on an administration that has been supportive of Benson’s leadership. Bad news for Cindi Marsh, director of student services, and high school Principal Jeffrey Hartmann, both of whom have the qualifications for the position.

So, now what?

Board member Jim Verbeck has proposed a steering committee composing six or seven teachers, several administrators, a couple of members of the public from each of P-O’s nine voting districts, and five student council members, in addition to the school board, to decide on the direction the district should head. His idea includes a question-and-answer session with all candidates on stage at the same time, kind of like a primary presidential debate, followed by a “social hour” where the committee members could interact with the candidates one on one.

That doesn’t sound exactly like the searches that the Pennsylvania School Boards Association helps its members conduct, but Tom Templeton, PSBA’s assistant executive director for school board and management services, said it’s hard to find an “average” for this position, given the disparity between districts, the elected officials that run them and the communities they serve.

“I’m not sure there is a typical search,” he said.

In Centre County, that’s clear. While P-O has swapped out seven superintendents, Bald Eagle Area has had Dan Fisher at the helm for 23 years. Bellefonte took 18 months between the beginning of a search to replace retiring superintendent James Masullo and installation of current leader Cheryl Potteiger. Penns Valley hired Brian Griffith in 2007 after a search conducted by an interim superintendent.

The process isn’t short. Templeton says 90 to 120 days can be the bare minimum, with boards advertising for candidates, narrowing the pool for interviews and going through multiple rounds of conversations. And that is before a front-runner is even selected and begins negotiating a contract with the district.

“For them to be having the discussion now is a very good thing,” he said.

Verbeck, who won his seat on the board in the last election, has done this before. He was a board member decades back when P-O hired its last outside candidate. Now, however, he hopes to find someone closer to home.

“I think someone from the Clearfield-Centre county area would understand us better,” he said. Benson’s outsider status has been a sticking point for some in the community.

However, options may be limited. Benson said there is a shortage of applicants in Pennsylvania, something Templeton confirmed.

“There’s certainly a shortage of candidates willing to apply for positions. Whether it’s a shortage of people with certification, that I’m not sure, but when a search (is) open, and a pool established, we have seen that pool decrease in volume. You are seeing fewer apply for positions,” he said.

Griffith blames that on “too many moving parts,” including ever increasing mandates from the state and federal governments, No Child Left Behind standards, and the politics of the job.

“It’s not an easy position,” he said.