The Cranston School Committee voted unanimously Monday to appoint Dr. Judy Lundsten as the superintendent of schools, taking the place of former Superintendent Peter Nero, who will now serve as superintendent in North Stonington, Conn.
Lundsten began her career in Cranston as a temporary teacher, filling in for an educator on maternity leave. She then moved up the ranks to become principal and, in 2009, assistant superintendent.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have dreamed I would be sitting here,” she said in response to a standing ovation from the committee and audience. “I can’t tell you how humbled I am by this.”
Lundsten had been filling in as interim superintendent since Nero left the district but was competing for the permanent placement alongside two other candidates, Dr. Reza Namin and Dr. Davida Ellen Irving. These three finalists were selected by a School Committee sub-committee from a field of nationwide candidates and even an international application. That pool was narrowed down to 20 candidates, and then to eight, who were extensively interviewed. The three finalists gave public presentations and answered questions that were submitted by the public.
School Committee member Stephanie Culhane spoke to potential critics of the process this week, saying that Lundsten’s selection was not indicative of in-house favoritism. When she was first elected to the Cranston School Committee, they were embarking on a search for superintendent and she says she was likewise critical of the process because a nationwide search was not performed. She was adamant this time that the position be opened up and said she is pleased with the results.
“This time around, we did the nationwide search and I’m positive there will be people...that won’t be necessarily happy with this outcome either,” she said. “This was an incredibly thorough search. Hours and hours of work went into this. I feel that Dr. Lundsten is the best candidate, and I hope that the public will understand and echo those sentiments.”
The part of the process that did disappoint Culhane was the poor turnout to public interviews. Roughly 30 members of the public showed up at each of the two sessions, despite free babysitting services provided by BASICS.
“Four months ago, Cranston East was filled to the gills for an issue that had zero to do with education,” she said, referencing the district’s battle over the prayer banner at Cranston West. “Now, this evening, this School Committee is about to make the most important decision we will make, and it’s great to see so many faces, but I’ve counted maybe 10 people who aren’t candidates or family or members of the media. That makes me sad. This decision is so important.”
School Committee member Frank Lombardi, now running for State Senate, said Lundsten was an obvious choice for him. He said Namin’s presentation did not provide a clear vision of where he wanted to take the district, and he feared that Irving’s experience in a small district would not prepare her for a department the size of Cranston.
“We are a district of 11,000 students and we do not have a superintendent that could perform the one-on-one tasks; we have to do it as a team. An integral part of that team is now stepping up to that plate,” he said. “We do need a superintendent that can hit the ground running.”
School Committee member Steven Bloom proposed an amendment Monday that puts additional accountability measures on the superintendent position. As part of Lundsten’s contract, which is dependent upon an administrative fiscal impact analysis, she must present and implement a 90- to 180-day action plan. Transparency requirements will call upon her to keep the School Committee and the public informed on progress on the district’s strategic plan, and her performance evaluation will be measured against the goals outlined in the plan. Bloom pointed out that these provisions, reinforcing accountability and transparency in the position, were not in place for earlier contracts.
Lundsten said she would expect no less.
“If we hold everyone else accountable, the superintendent needs to be accountable also,” she said.
Prior to her appointment, Nero spoke as a member of the public in support of her promotion. He said this decision by the committee would be the most important in their tenure.
“This district has looked into the abyss and is now looking into blue skies. You will need someone now with an extensive institutional and historical knowledge of this district. The person who can do that job is Dr. Judy Lundsten,” he said.
Nero says that Lundsten is prepared to hit the ground running because he made a point of putting her in tense administrative positions, running his own form of professional development.
“I gave my staff opportunities to do tasks they would not ordinarily do in a lot of other districts. I wanted them to be prepared to go to the next level,” he said, adding, “She deserves to be superintendent of schools.”
Each of the committee members echoed those statements, saying that Lundsten is capable of moving the district forward.
“You are undoubtedly worthy of this position. You shined 100 percent above any other candidate that came before me. I am convinced that you’re going to move the school department forward,” said Mike Traficante.
Lundsten received a standing ovation after being appointed. After the meeting, while fielding congratulatory hugs and handshakes, she said she looks forward to being the “first teacher” and “first learner” of the district. Her first order of business, on Tuesday, was a professional development program alongside Cranston teachers. Already, she said she is full of ideas on how to tackle her new role.
“I’m going to hit the ground running,” she said. “I think we need to look at our student achievement data, and we need to look at, ‘Do we have happy families in our school buildings?’”