The superintendent search committee grilled candidate Robert Putman for three hours.
DALTON, Mass. — Assistant Superintendent Robert Putnam will be recommended as the new Central Berkshire Regional School District superintendent following a rigorous interview on Tuesday at Nessacus Regional Middle School.
The decision to hire Putnam when the position is vacated later this year may come as early as Thursday.
After a four-hour interview process, including one hour in executive session, the superintendent search subcommittee determined Putnam was the best candidate based on a unanimous vote. On Thursday, a recommendation for Putnam's hiring will be made to the School Committee during its regularly scheduled meeting at Nessacus at 7 p.m.
The committee will then have an opportunity to take further action, including voting formally to hire Putnam or deciding to continue the search process.
Current Superintendent William Cameron announced recently that he will retire following the completion of his three-year contract in June. Since then, a superintendent search subcommittee was created by School Committee Vice Chairman Shawn Armacost to lead the hiring process.
Putnam's intention to apply for the superintendent position became public as a topic of discussion at the most recent School Committee meeting on Dec. 12. As an internal candidate, the committee deemed it best to interview Putnam exclusively prior to advertising the job publicly.
Putnam finished third out of three finalists interviewed for the position in 2011 when Cameron was hired. Superintendent search subcommittee co-Chairman Peter Gazillo, sole member of the current subcommittee who was a part of the previous process, said working with Putman on various subcommittees since then led him to observe qualities he was skeptical of him having during his initial bid.
"I wasn't sure how he would be with conflict resolution and I wasn't sure how he would be perceived as a leader, as somebody who could take the district and move it forward. By his responses, by the things that I've heard from teachers and peers, principals and other superintendents, he has that skill set. He's demonstrating it as he gets the opportunity," Gazillo said.
Since he is an internal candidate, Putnam's interview necessitated the public's invitation, which attracted a handful of silent observers, most of whom were school employees, and School Committee Chairman Michael Case.
The subcommittee vetted Putnam with approximately 50 questions over a continuous, three-hour session. These questions — crafted by individual subcommittee members, ranging from educators to parents, and developed in email and closed-door conversations — covered topics such as technology in classrooms, statewide educational initiatives and the nature of the superintendent position as a publicized and political one. All 10 members of the subcommittee were present to administer their questions and issue follow-ups to some, including one member who spent its duration participating via a conference call.
Despite being asked after one question to keep his answer to under 50 words, a verbose Putnam apologized later for being long-winded. Nessacus teacher and president of the teacher's union Joanne Dowling was surprised to hear the revelation that Putnam was a high school dropout, which he made of his own volition at the end of the interview.
"It really kind of segued back to his original comment about his curiosity about education; about not giving up on kids and that he's had that personal experience of picking himself up and dusting himself off. I like to hear a candidate talk about the kids and he did," Dowling said.
After earning his General Equivalency Diploma (GED), Putnam earned an associates degree in liberal arts at Berkshire Community College before gaining three more degrees at the University of Massachusetts: bachelor's of history, master's of education and doctorate in curriculum study.
Putnam addressed questions involving the fiscal viability of a district with a declining student population, the application of data to administrative measurements and the development of vocational learning in the district. He weaved in many personal anecdotes into his answers, such as meetings with department heads, reading on his exercise bike and his passion for musical performance.
Often repeating questions aloud, he gave animated responses, joking lightly and using hand gestures to express his points. He had a clipboard by his side with simple notes to aid him and a concoction of kale and spinach juice helped him stay hydrated during the lengthy session.
Putnam has worked for some 30 years in education, boasting his ability to move up in the proverbial ranks from an elementary school teacher to a principal and most recently to his current position in the central office. He identified his experience in the district as a quality that sets him apart from the field.
"I do have four years and an understanding of the district in a way that puts me in a position to continue the efforts that have been made, as well as, sort of, put a different stamp on it with some of the things that I do," Putnam said.
He touted the replacement of an $9,000 computer program with a free replica using a Google application and the institution of an efficient test assessment program that yields faster test scores as examples of the positive impact he has already made on the school district. He noted that his greatest career achievement was effectively combining four elementary schools into one, while maintaining stability and positive morale throughout staff members and parents.
Noting his personal sense of humility, he said he finds it daunting to lead a district that has a working budget of more than $25 million and some 400 employees.
"I'm qualified by all of my experience, but I am somewhat in awe of the position," Putnam said. "I've watched a number of people do it. I've watched this job being done well, I've watched it being done in a mediocre fashion and I've watched it done poorly. I think that that's another perspective I bring to this."
Putnam credited Cameron as being a valuable mentor to him. Following the interview, Gazillo referenced a discussion his subcommittee had with Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Jake McCandless when he was told that if Cameron was the smartest individual in the county, Putnam could give him a run for his money.
"To hear somebody, a peer of his, who really has no — it doesn't matter to him, whether Rob gets the position or not here — all those pieces came together for me in thinking that I wanted to vote to recommend here [Putnam] as the next superintendent to the school committee," Gazillo said.
When asked about his work in connecting with the community, he referred to it as keeping him out of the public eye, saying he focuses on the "dirty work" or rather the "nuts and bolts." He did say, however, that it is much more his nature to be in the public eye, something he is not shy about, saying one of his favorite aspects of being a principal was connecting with the public.
It was ultimately the list of his three most valued skills necessary for an effective superintendent that confirmed his viability in the eyes of Gazillo in particular.
"His ability to inspire, the clarity of communication and being demanding/accountable. I wanted to hear those things; but that was one of the things in that leadership the first time around that I didn't know. I knew Rob had a great sense of humor, I knew he was super intelligent, I knew he had the curriculum and education background, but did he have that ability to keep people accountable? To demand excellence from everybody in the district that worked under him? For him to rank that in the top three, I was very pleased to see that."