Blaine County searches for new superintendent who can unite a divided community

GwenCarol Holmes has announced she will step down on June 30, 2021.

The Blaine County School District is searching for a new superintendent who can unify the district in the face of community turmoil and unprecedented disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Trustees and community members are working with the national search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates to find a successor to Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes.

Holmes, who is Idaho’s highest-paid superintendent, has an annual salary of $180,208. She told the school board in March that she would step down effective June 30, 2021.

On the one hand, the position is routinely among the top two highest-paid superintendent jobs in Idaho. It’s based in a picturesque mountain community that includes the iconic Sun Valley Resort.

On the other hand, the position attracts intense scrutiny from a divided community that essentially ran off the last two superintendents and fueled recurring turnover on the school board.

  • A district survey from earlier this year found that 71 percent of respondents were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with Holmes.
  • Patrons circulated a petition in 2019, calling for Holmes ouster after accusing her of wasteful spending and alleging ethical violations.
  • Former students filed a civil rights suit against the district in 2019, saying their free speech rights were violated. Holmes and seven other district employees were named as defendants.
  • Last year, Blaine County’s former human resources director filed a tort claim against the district.
  • Before Holmes’ tenure, Lonnie Barber stepped down as superintendent in 2013, after clashing with trustees over leadership styles. Barber ultimately received a $600,000 settlement.

“The community up here, as every community does, demands excellence of its education leaders,” trustee Dan Turner said, adding, “The community has asked to have a louder voice in the schools, and we hope to invite them into the superintendent search process as much as we can. We want to listen to those voices.”

Blaine County has a huge tax base compared to other Idaho districts of similar size. High living costs reflective of a resort town contribute to a comparably higher number of local funds flowing into the district. The average teacher salary in Blaine is about $75,000, compared to $53,000 in West Ada, Idaho’s largest school district.

At the same time, about 40 percent of the district’s student population is Hispanic. There are 722 English language learners, corresponding to about 20 percent of the student population.

Turner said the district contracted with HYA for just under $20,000 in June to run the search. Turner, who helped the Wood River YMCA find a new CEO five years ago, said HYA specializes in placing superintendents in mountain resort communities.

A patron survey and online community forums are aiding the search.

“This is a critical time for our school district, and we want to hear from our families, staff, students and community members about what they feel are the most important factors when it comes to our next superintendent,” school board chairman Keith Roark said.

Turner has several priorities for the next superintendent. He expects an experienced leader who is not learning the job as he or she goes. Just as importantly, Turner doesn’t want someone looking to put a cherry on the top of a long resume while easing into retirement between chairlift rides.

Blaine County has challenges and the new leader needs to be prepared to address them.

Turner believes the pandemic is widening Blaine County’s gaps as the community attempts to navigate a hybrid educational model. This spring, Blaine County was the first part of Idaho to be hit hard by COVID-19. Many students have private tutors to help when they attend school online, Turner said. But many other students don’t and may be responsible for watching a younger sibling while their parents are working and they are still expected to attend school online.

“We have a huge divide in the community as it relates to opportunity gaps we need to fill,” Turner said. “I want to find a superintendent who has experience in closing gaps.

“We want someone really engaged in the issues we have in our community.”

The district hopes to have a slate of candidates to consider some time in November.

Have your say

Blaine County is hosting an online community forum from 6-7:30 p.m. Sept. 30. Those interested in participating may join via Zoom web stream or by calling (312) 626-6799 and entering the code: 889 2064 6585.

Click here to access the district’s survey.

Clark Corbin

About Clark Corbin

Reporter Clark Corbin has covered Idaho government and education for more than a decade. He’s followed every legislative session, gavel-to-gavel, since 2011. Clark is a co-host of the Extra Credit podcast with Kevin Richert published on Fridays. You can follow him on Twitter: @clarkcorbin. He can be reached by email at [email protected]

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