Whitehall Central School District Superintendent James Watson announced last week he plans to retire from the district he has overseen for nearly three decades.
Watson, who is wrapping up his 27th year at the helm of the district, said he will remain on the job until his replacement can begin, likely in the fall.
“This is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile and I felt the time was right. I’m of the age and I’m blessed to still be in good health,” Watson, 62, said. “I still enjoy what I do and I want to leave while I still enjoy it.
I think with the mandates from the state and federal governments that it’s time for some new thinking and some new ideas.”
Watson began his career in education as an elementary teacher at Hammond Central School in St. Lawrence County. He then became principal and assistant superintendent within the Gouverneur Central School district and later became assistant to the superintendent in the Watertown school district.
He was hired in 1986 to become Whitehall’s superintendent.
During his time as superintendent, Watson has presided over a time of tremendous change both within the district and in the field of education.
The district’s population has declined precipitously during Watson’s tenure, fueled in part by the decline of working class jobs in the community.
But the district has experienced a number of capital projects that have expanded and improved the school’s infrastructure and graduation rates have steadily increased under Watson’s stewardship.
Reflecting on his career, Watson said education has changed in some fundamental ways since he began his career.
And while the opportunities available to students are greater now than when he started, districts have continued to lose control as state and federal governments enforce more regulations, Watson said.
He said districts don’t have as much flexibility to establish their own curriculum and can no longer offer students a local diploma.
“It’s become a one-size-fits-all curriculum and I don’t think that’s advantageous for all our students, especially those that are not as academically focused,” Watson said.
Events like Columbine and Sept. 11 have also had a profound impact on education, Watson said.
While those events opened administrators’ eyes to the issue of school security, they also tempered local enthusiasm for school-based foreign travel, which spurred students to think globally, Watson said.
Virginia Rivette, president of the Board of Education, said Watson will be missed.
“He was an enormous asset to the school and the community. Financially, he was brilliant. He had a phrase, “we’ll give the kids what they need,” and that’s the way the board has felt. We’d love to give them all the bells and whistles, but we have to balance that with what the taxpayers can afford. I feel the kids are getting a good education and we’ve been able to preserve many programs.”
Rivette added that Watson always put students first and was effective in his handling of staff.
“He’s going to be missed. He’s made lots of history,” Rivette said. “I hope we can find someone who has some of the same qualities or their own qualities but is able to perform the job at the same level.”
James Dexter, superintendent of the local BOCES, will lead the district in its search for a new superintendent and the position will be advertised regionally and state-wide.
Rivette said Dexter will screen applicants, verify their qualifications and provide the board with a list of candidates.
The Board of Education intends to review that list at next month’s board meeting and is hopeful it will begin interviewing candidates by the end of next month.
“We would love to see lots of candidates we could choose from,” Rivette said.
The finalists who make it through the initial interview process, will be asked to come in for a second interview and the board expects to choose a replacement by the end of the summer.
There are a handful of faculty members within the district who possess the necessary certifications to serve as superintendent but it remains to be seen if any of them have interest in the position
Watson said he plans to take a hands-off approach to selecting his replacement, but will provide guidance if asked.
Three or four hiring committees, each consisting of Board of Education members, school faculty and members of the community, will be established to review candidates.
“We hope the committees can give us some different points of view as we go through the hiring process,” Rivette said.
If all goes well, the new superintendent would start by Nov. 1, if not sooner. Watson will remain on the job until that time.
“The goal is to ensure a smooth transition,” Watson said. “I don’t see the need for an interim superintendent. There’s no urgency not to be here.”
Rivette said the district will offer a three-year contract to whomever they end up choosing.
He said he believes the position is an attractive one for the right candidate.
“I think the district is doing well. There are a lot of positives. We have a great staff and some quality instructors,” Watson said. “The commitment of this community to its kids will remain as one of my best memories.”