MORRICE — In the midst of interviewing candidates for its fourth superintendent in six years, the Morrice Area Schools Board of Education members were asked Wednesday about what they would like to accomplish in the next five years.
The room was quiet for about 20 seconds. Board Treasurer Jerry Dennis, acknowledging the district was in this same position only six months ago, broke the silence with what was seemingly on everyone’s mind.
“We need that stability. We need to have somebody here that gets what we are — we as a community, we as a family, we as a district, we as in everybody that’s sitting in here and everybody that walks these hallways,” he said. “We need somebody that’s going to be here and gets what we’re all about.”
The school board narrowed its field of superintendent applicants down to two finalists: Linden Middle School Principal Rob Pouch and Charlotte Upper Elementary Principal Mark McGarry. Both will undergo final interviews Monday inside the district’s Jr./Sr. high school media center. Interviews are open to the public and begin at 6 p.m.
Superintendent Michelle Falcon resigned from the district June 30, prompting the board to conduct its fourth superintendent search since 2016, and the second in less than a year.
Falcon was hired in December 2020 as a part-time/interim superintendent, replacing Michael Dewey, who retired the same month. Falcon tendered her resignation during Morrice’s May 12 board of education meeting, and Dewey returned on a temporary basis.
Morrice board President Randy Farrow previously said the district hopes to fill the position with a full-time superintendent by August.
“We’ve been in part-time mode for a while,” Farrow said. “(The board agreed we) need to make it full-time. We’re looking at other options to make it feasible.”
The board of education hosted four finalists for interviews Tuesday and Wednesday inside the Jr./Sr. high school media center. Board members asked each candidate the same set of questions, which ranged from their leadership philosophy to how they would address the board’s priorities for the district — academics, staff retention and communication.
Pouch, a former assistant principal and athletic director at Fremont Public Schools, and current middle school principal at Linden Community Schools, said his desire to become a superintendent stems, in part, from what he’s experienced with his four children.
“It’s knowing that my four kids all learn very differently and all 500 kids in this district all learn differently and there’s not a one-size-fits-all model for the kids that we lead,” Pouch said Tuesday. “There’s different paths for different kids and as educators, we need to lead that charge and this is the position that can have the most impact on that.”
Pouch said he’s familiar with rural, agricultural communities, having grown up in Fruitport, and noted he’s worked in districts of similar size — notably Peck Community Schools, where served as a middle/high school teacher and head varsity football coach.
Pouch said one of his priorities, if hired by Morrice, would be reengaging kids, staff and community, acknowledging the disconnect experienced by many throughout the past 18 months of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s making sure we’re taking care of all kids, making sure we’re using some of the monies that we have designated for the mental health (services) to make sure these kids and families are supported.”
Pouch also stressed the importance of developing a shared vision for Morrice, connecting with stakeholders to learn where Morrice wants to go and establishing appropriate benchmarks to meet those goals.
Acknowledging Morrice’s declining enrollment — the district has slightly less than 500 students — Pouch suggested looking into where school-of-choice students are going, learning their reasons for leaving. That information, he said, will allow the district to identify potential areas for improvement. Publicizing the district’s successes is also important, he said.
With respect to finances, Pouch said the district “has to get creative” with every resource it has. At Linden, Pouch has worked to establish co-op services with neighboring school districts, among them Lake Fenton, allowing students to participate in a wider variety of programs outside Linden.
Ensuring Morrice has excellent academic interventions for struggling students, a viable curriculum, and supporting and retaining staff would be Pouch’s priorities in the district, if hired.
McGarry, a former middle/high school English teacher at Holt Public Schools, and current upper elementary principal at Charlotte Public Schools, stressed the importance of relationships as education enters a “new era” post-pandemic.
“Being able to connect with people on a daily basis, being able to connect with people whether it’s students, community, that’s something I’m passionate about,” McGarry said. “It’s something that I’m looking to expand upon now as a superintendent, to really form those connections with community, with students, with staff so that we can provide the best possible experience for every single student, every single day.”
McGarry said part of what attracted him to Morrice was the district’s motto: Big enough for excellence, small enough to care.
“The individual student is really what matters. … Trying to make sure every single student has the skills that they need to reach their individual goals,” he said.
McGarry acknowledged the challenges of working in a smaller school district, noting education is very competitive right now in terms of acquiring and retaining staff.
“Staff retention is going to be a key aspect when we’re talking about making sure that we can provide the services we need for our students,” McGarry said. He emphasized valuing staff within the district, making space for their voices to be heard and constantly making an effort to show appreciation for their work.
McGarry said his philosophy, in part, centers around the premise that “education is about experiences.”
“It’s important for students to apply what they’re learning,” he said. “We need to provide and sustain experiences.”
McGarry also emphasized the importance of community throughout his interview.
“You have to have parents in there, aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas. You have to have them there because that’s what makes us a community building,” McGarry said. “If we don’t have them, (the district and community will) feel like separate entities.”
Financially, McGarry said it’s important to have constant conversations with staff to gauge what’s needed and what’s actually being used. That approach, he said, resulted in a $350 yearly teacher budget at Charlotte Upper Elementary, as well as the expansion of clubs at the school.
Dowagiac Middle School Principal Sean Wightman and Clio Area Schools Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Steve Keskes also interviewed for Morrice’s superintendent position. A fifth preliminary finalist, Steve Vowles of Webberville Community Schools, withdrew from consideration prior to interviewing, citing a recent death in the family.
Making a choice
Board members deliberated for about an hour before narrowing the candidate field down to Pouch and McGarry. Both candidates, board members agreed, would be a good fit in the community.
Business Manager Lynnette Cole expressed support for Pouch, citing his experience at both the elementary and secondary levels.
“I like his energy,” she said.
Board trustee Amy Workman appreciated McGarry’s thoughts on engaging with community stakeholders.
“Mark would be a tremendous community asset,” Workman said.
Pouch will conduct a second interview with the board at 6:15 p.m. Monday. McGarry’s interview will follow at 7:15 p.m.