Around 3:30 pm on May 6, John Reed’s first day on the job as acting school superintendent, he sat back in his chair, peeled a banana and took a bite, chuckling over a question about whether the snack represented breakfast.
But in two separate conversations with The Bee this week, it became evidently clear that Dr Reed is prioritizing a lot of things above and beyond missing an occasional meal.
In the space of just a few seconds, he ticks off a list of issues — “opportunities” as he prefers to describe them. Those challenges include fast-tracking contacts and interviews with potential school administrative candidates he is considering to fill seven administrative vacancies, including that of the late Sandy Hook School Principal Dawn Hochsprung.
He was also planning for visits to each school in the district before the week is out, prepping for his first meeting with the Board of Education, initiating a districtwide budget freeze, dealing with the recent untimely death of a local middle school student, and managing a six-month-old administrative error resulting in a leak of hundreds of students records (see separate story).
To top it off, just a few hours into his first day, Dr Reed was forced to issue a notice to district parents about heightened security at the temporary Sandy Hook School in Monroe after a report that a carjacked vehicle might be on or near the premises.
One day later, he sat for a lengthy video interview with The Bee, in which he responded to questions about the state of the district as he has found it as departing Superintendent Janet Robinson transitions to a new post in Stratford; the demeanor of district staff and students as they grapple with post-12/14 recovery; post-traumatic unknowns facing the district in the coming months and years; and the implications of past and pending budget actions.
Dr Reed began the interview reflecting on some of the similarities and differences he sees in the district since retiring more than 10 years ago.
“I certainly know many of the people who remain in the district. And I think the consistency that was apparent in the hiring practices we had as a very essential mission of the school system seem to have been maintained,” Dr Reed said.
Noting he has been retired from the district for 11 years this June, the acting superintendent — he will become “interim” on July 1 — said the way school board meetings are handled is different, with a consent agenda replacing a practice of having workshop meetings one week with no voting, followed by an action meeting the following week.
The 12/14 Tragedy
Dr Reed said as he has talked with residents, parents, staff, children, and others outside the district, he senses “a hunger to return to December 13 and have their lives resume.”
“But this tragedy has profoundly impacted me, and I expect it will be with me in some ways for the rest of my life,” he added. He said some may be moving toward a return to normalcy, with certain individuals further along the road to recovery than others.
“[But] speaking for the school system, not everybody understands that there are a number of people who are profoundly impacted by this,” Dr Reed said. “You may think you’re handling it well and then six months later, or two or three years later, some trigger can occur and you find you are not handling it well.”
Dr Reed said, with this in mind, during certain budget years he was able to stand before taxpayers and say, “I have a reasonable understanding of what the needs of the school system are.”
He said this year is “more fluid,” and that he is not certain what the needs of the children or the adults in the school system will be.
Dr Reed said he has spent a significant amount of time since December at the temporary Sandy Hook facility in Monroe. And he is trying to model to his staff the kind of behavior that contributes to the successful functioning of the school system, while considering the personal needs of the people within that system.
“The situation is so unique for the people in that building on the 14th,” he said. “That is particularly true for those who experienced that threat and terror first hand.”
During The Bee interview Dr Reed also delved into the process and status of grants the district is applying for to help underwrite the personnel and special services he expects will be required in the coming year and beyond by staff and students across the Newtown district.
He anticipates hiring social workers, school psychologists, an assistant principal at Sandy Hook School, a summer program for Sandy Hook students to help them catch up on studies if required, and a district mental health services administrator, all under the grant.
Dr Reed believes the district should be prepared to track all the students from the current first grade class at Sandy Hook School all the way through twelfth grade, and be immediately ready to respond if lingering post-traumatic effects begin to present.
Budget Challenges Identified
Regarding the second-round budget facing voters on May 14, Dr Reed simply asked taxpayers for their trust that the district’s request is appropriate and vitally in need of their support.
“In the last four years, the average increase for the Board of Education has been less than nine-tenths of one percent,” he said. “I think many people may guess it’s one-and-a-half or two percent.”
And while per pupil expenditures have been traditionally low, the district continues to perform among the top-funded districts in state testing.
“For many years I could look people in the eye and tell them we have one of the most cost-effective districts in the state,” he said.
But he said when taxpayers have that context, and officials are looking to take other things out of the budget, ongoing frugal practices and efficiencies can come back to haunt the community.
“We’re trying to make up for things…like technology and maintenance projects. Anything new in the budget is under serious jeopardy,” Dr Reed said. “Obviously we want to minimize the impact on kids, and frankly I think the Newtown school system is the victim of its own success in terms of shielding children from [reductions to requested budget increases].”
He said 80 percent of the issues the district faces do not require additional funds, just better decisionmaking.
“Look, when you have a frugal school system you do reach a level [where] you have to maintain it. I think we are there,” he said. “I think it’s vital the budget has to be passed. The promise I will make is, the budget will be transparent. If there is a balance, that money will be discussed publicly.
“This is about trust; it’s about us embracing each other as people who live and work in Newtown,” Dr Reed concluded. “This isn’t about good people or bad people, it’s about decisions that are difficult under the best of circumstances because of what people can or can’t afford. I’m just telling you we will be good [stewards] of what the people choose to give us.”