Bruce Benson

Stafford Superintendent Bruce Benson is leaving to take a similar post in North Carolina.

The next leader of Stafford County Public Schools should be someone who shows emotion—and even gets angry when appropriate.

Someone who is forward thinking, not a “good old boy” or a “stuffed shirt.”

And someone who is willing to put down roots in Stafford.

Those suggestions are among the community feedback collected by a search firm the School Board hired to help recruit Stafford’s fourth superintendent in 11 years.

Superintendent Bruce Benson is leaving in a month, after four years on the job, to become the leader of North Carolina’s Alamance–Burlington School System. Benson’s predecessors, David Sawyer and Randy Bridges, lasted just three years and two and a half years, respectively, leading to seemingly constant uncertainty about the school system’s direction.

“All want someone who will live in Stafford, become deeply embedded in the community and want to stay,” stated a recent report from Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates that summarized the search firm’s findings in interviews and an online survey. “The desire for someone to make a long-term commitment to Stafford was also a priority in 2014, so it is felt even more intensely in 2018.”

The next superintendent will face a tough political environment that includes long-standing tension between the School Board and Board of Supervisors—which controls the purse strings—and a countywide student redistricting process on the horizon. The report also mentioned feedback about perceived racial disparities and low employee morale.

Just 32 percent of teachers agreed that the school system is headed in the right direction versus 74 percent of administrators, according to an online survey filled out by 1,497 employees, students and residents. The consultant also gathered feedback during interviews with 136 schools employees, students and parents.

Some employees, particularly veteran teachers, have been unhappy with recent pay-scale adjustments. The search firm’s report said Benson’s efforts to improve pay is appreciated, but “remains controversial.”

This year, for instance, teachers with 13 or more years on the job received the minimum 2.5 percent raise, while less-experienced teachers got up to 7.5 percent. Benson described the larger pay increase for newer teachers as a “market-based” raise to help put their salaries more in line with those of similarly sized school systems.

The next superintendent must also deal with the perception that more affluent parents wield the most influence—particularly when it comes to redistricting.

The last redistricting process brought out residents “who openly disparaged schools with larger populations of minority students and/or students in poverty,” according to the report. The report is apparently referring to parents’ opposition to last year’s proposal to move part of Colonial Forge High School’s attendance zone to the more diverse North Stafford High School, where 42 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.

“These divisive comments and the credence that some people feel they were given need to be addressed,” the report stated, adding later that some parents call North Stafford the “ghetto school.” “Specifically, stakeholders want to know that Stafford County schools welcomes and nurtures the potential of all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, family income or sexual orientation.”

The School Board voted in March 2017 to let siblings of current Colonial Forge students enroll in the high school, regardless of their attendance zone.

School Board members plan to eventually redistrict students countywide to ease overcrowding at some schools, though it’s unclear when that process will begin.

In addition, the new superintendent must deal with distrust from supervisors, some of whom feel the School Board asks for more money than it really needs. The search firm’s report said the tension between the elected bodies only adds to the anxiety over yet another change in leadership.

“There is an acute need for a strong superintendent to be able to provide the leadership to address the difficult political atmosphere in Stafford,” the report stated.

The School Board hopes to announce the hiring of its next superintendent before the start of next school year. Pamela Kahle, associate superintendent of instructional services, will serve as acting superintendent.

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Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402