Mike Penca

Mason City Interim Superintendent Mike Penca has been selected as superintendent of Flagstaff United School District in Arizona. Penca was one of two finalists for the position. 

We don’t wish to make anyone feel unwelcome in Flagstaff, much less someone who has committed to moving from his longtime home in a faraway state to lead a major public institution here.

So our comments on the selection of Michael Penca of Mason City, to lead the Flagstaff Unified School District will be directed at the search and hiring process that brought him here. By all accounts, Mike Penca is a good man. But whether he is a good fit for FUSD superintendent seems in doubt.

To start at the end, Penca’s hiring was clearly rushed. He was one of two finalists announced in late February. Within two weeks, one finalist had dropped out, to be replaced by a second. They were interviewed in Flagstaff on the same day in late March and the board agreed the next day to offer the job to Penca.

Why the hurry? Within two weeks, Kim Khatibi, one of three FUSD board members out of five who voted to hire Penca, announced she was leaving the board to join her husband at his new job in Seattle. She had wanted to stay long enough to make the new hire, she told the Daily Sun.

Usually, school boards look to reach consensus when making such an important decision. If they can’t agree, they will re-evaluate the job criteria or the pay – even change consultants – then launch a new search.

In this case, one board member, Kara Kelty, wasn’t on board with either of the two finalists. Another, Carole Gilmore, had an undisclosed conflict of interest and couldn’t vote. That means 40 percent of the group that will be the new superintendent’s boss didn’t vote for him.

Kelty said she had nothing personally against either finalist. Her concern was that they were from much smaller districts in less diverse communities and with no experience dealing with Arizona’s complex school funding process.

That all seems true about Mason City and its schools, where Penca is the interim superintendent. It is a city of 28,000 that lost population between 2000 and 2010, according to the census. Yet when the city had the chance to get a meat packing plant with 1,800 jobs last year, it denied the company a development agreement. 

The school district has fewer than 4,000 students (FUSD has nearly 10,000) and is 95 percent white (FUSD is less than 50 percent white).

On the other hand, Mason City has an All-American reputation as the model for “The Music Man” written by city native Meredith Wilson. And its Kraft Foods plant produces the entire U.S. supply of refrigerated ready-to-eat Jell-O pudding snacks.

If the other finalists had different backgrounds, at least the board would have had a choice. But one was from Gallup, N.M. (pop. 21,000) and the other from tiny Hiawatha, Kan. (pop. 3,400). Again, both are no doubt good people to get where they are today.

But a 10,000-student, highly diverse school district in a university city and in a state that underfunds its schools presents challenges where relevant experience would be very handy, even essential.

At this point, Penca has likely signed a contract – FUSD hasn’t provided any more information.

It has in Dave Dirksen a very experienced interim superintendent who could continue to fill in if a new search is needed. If not, we’d recommend that Dirksen be retained in a consulting capacity to help get Penca through what could be a very steep learning curve.

We wish him success. But we also wish the board had done what was needed to broaden the field with more experienced and diverse candidates.

This editorial appeared in the April 5 edition of the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff, another Lee Enterprises publication.

The Arizona Daily Sun is another Lee Enterprises newspaper. 

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