The Three Forks School Board held a special meeting Wednesday afternoon to interview the two finalists for the superintendent position the district needs to fill.

Current Three Forks High School Principal Robert DoBell and Ennis High School Principal John Sullivan have risen to the top of more than 20 candidates.

Sullivan worked as a teacher in the Ennis School District for 17 years. He taught business and computer classes and worked as the schools IT director. From 2008 to now, Sullivan has been the high school principal.

During his career in Ennis, Sullivan served as the athletic director for three years, the janitor in the summers and the coach of various teams. 

In 2012, Sullivan interviewed for the Ennis Superintendent position along with John Overstreet, the retired Three Forks Superintendent who ended up securing the job.

When Overstreet was hired, Ennis School Board Trustees voiced concerns about losing Sullivan to another school district if a superintendent position became available.

Sullivan has a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction. He earned his undergraduate degree from Western Montana College in 1991. 

DoBell took the Three Forks Middle and High School Principal position for the 2012-2013 school year. Before joining the Three Forks staff, DoBell served as the vice-principal and the curriculum director at Stevensville High School. He also spent eight years teaching in Stevensville. In total, DoBell spent 12 years in Ravalli County as an educator.

DoBell attended the University of New Mexico to complete his undergraduate degree. DoBell earned his Master in Education and Technology from the University of Montana. Two months ago, DoBell earned his Educational Doctorate Degree.

Outgoing Three Forks Superintendent Jerry Breen is retiring after two years in the position. Breen spent 28 years with the district as a teacher, coach, principal and finally a superintendent.

The board will make a decision tomorrow night at 5:00 p.m. following a public comment on the candidates and an executive session. The Three Forks Board Room is located in the school by the high school office.

Here are the questions lobbed at both candidates by School Board Trustees Tuesday afternoon.

  1. When budgets are tight, there are no easy choices in making budget reductions. How would you approach making difficult choices such as staff reductions and elimination of education programs?

Sullivan: “Keep cuts away from students if you can. Maybe try to save on maintenance supplies. Try to find alternative ways to fund your programs.”

Sullivan also said to look to levies to absorb the impact of cuts. He said it is important to leave the general fund alone. Sullivan said cutting from the activities fund (part of the general fund) would be ill advised as well.

DoBell: “I believe in zero-based budget philosophy, rather than building it from the ground up every year.”

DoBell said he relies on a team to help him know what is needed in the classroom.

“We’re in a human business. We need to make sure we provide that opportunity for kids. But we have to follow the collective bargaining agreement.”

He also said that in tough budget times, it’s important to apply for grants and “exhaust all options and make sure everyone has good input into things.”

  1. What level of participation do you feel is appropriate for board members in the affairs of the district?

Sullivan: “Day to day, let the district run the school. Day to day, you have to trust superintendent and principals. The board has to be involved in long term planning.”

Dobell: “Board relations with the superintendent are critical. You have to have good relationships with school board members. It’s important that board members know what’s going on.”

  1. What is your style in consulting/collaborating with people affected by decisions?

Sullivan: “My style is basically one-on-one. I’m a ‘we’ person. I want to solve things as a team. I’m not a micro manager. I’m kind of an up front, personal guy. I won’t beat around the bush. Emails are impersonal. I’m not a facebook guy. I like face to face.”

Dobell: “If I have to go see teacher A, I’m not going to send an email. I think face-to-face communication is great. I take pride in calling all the parents and teachers back. I’m here a lot. I tell folks to come in and talk to me. I try to get out and visit classrooms. I try to see folks on their time.”

  1. What communication approach is most effective for you with your teachers?

Sullivan: “To communicate with teachers, I informally pop in classrooms. I say hi to teachers at basketball games. If it’s an important decision, I’ll meet with them one on one.”

DoBell: “We need more time with our teachers. We need more PIR days. Personal contact and relationship building is important. Technology will never replace face-to-face.”

  1. What do you believe are the best ways for a district to monitor student achievement?

Sullivan: “Most people will say you should look at your CRT and AYP scores. I agree with that, but you must follow each class. How is that class doing individually in fifth grade then in sixth grade.”

Sullivan also said graduation rates, ACT/SAT scores, AP test scores, Response to Intervention tracking are good ways to monitor student progress, but they need to paint a cumulative picture of the entire spectrum of student achievement.

DoBell: “We gather our data. We have achievement testing. We have climate surveys. We gave the My Voice Survey. We collect all our data and then monitor.”

DoBell said the district must have a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” as well as a strategic plan that addressed the firm development of long-range “big audacious goals” for the district.  

  1. What is the most important job of a superintendent and what is the best use of your time?

Sullivan: “I think the most important job is building relationships. And building a positive image for your district. The superintendent is the face of your district. Managing finances, managing the budget also weighs into that.

Sullivan said he makes an effort to congratulate students and teachers for their accomplishments both big and small.  

“Recognizing small achievements that can lead to big achievements, for both students and teachers. I’ve been over-the-top for kids. I lead the pep rally. I have the best interest of our kids in mind.”

DoBell: “I think the super position is multi-faceted. I don’t think perhaps one thing is more important than the next thing. I think we need to be good stewards of the budget. That’s the lifeblood. It’s really important the superintendent works really well with the business manager. You have to work well with one another. I think evaluation of principals is very important. Board/superintendent relations are super important.

All those things are on a level playing field and I don’t see one thing being more important than the other.”

  1. Some employees and community members are very resistant to change, while others see change in a positive way. How do you view change in the context of educational programs?

Sullivan: “If you’re not changing, you’re not growing. We had some resistance when we tried to extend school day from seven periods to eight. But implementing a study hall has been huge for kids. Change is needed for growth. It’s scary at times, but it can also be a breath of fresh air.”

Dobell: “I don’t want to have too many plates for principals or teachers to spin. We need to identify a few ideological core items that we’re gonna push and really push those.”

 DoBell said when he first started his job in Three Forks, he had to align where he thought the school would be with the reality of where it was. To smoothly implement changes, DoBell said meetings with stakeholders involved are especially important.

  1. Explain your plan to foster and develop a positive working relationship.

Sullivan: “You lead not in front by right next to the person next to you. I’m not going to micromanage my teachers or my principals. You lead them in a positive manner.”

DoBell: “I’m full of energy. I think the business manager super and principals set the tone for the school. It’s not all roses. You have to make some difficult decisions. We need to make those decisions and come out with a unified front. The more that our staff can see that we’re united and we have a positive working attitude is critical because it sets the tone.”

  1. Give us some idea of how you judge your own effectiveness as a superintendent. How would you expect the Board to evaluate your work?

Sullivan: “Is your district moving in the right direction? If it is, you can say, we have a superintendent moving us in the right direction. Is the district better off? Is the budget in tact? Are taxpayers happy? Do the students know who I am?”

Sullivan also said having immediate evaluation from the Three Forks School Board will help him.  

DoBell: “I think effectiveness as a superintendent is how are we doing with all the things I just mentioned? How does the community view the school? How are we working with the community? We need to look at data and student achievement. How has data and the programs we’ve put in place effected children? One of the things I’ve done every year (in various positions) is I set goals for the year; professional and personal. I did it even if the superintendent didn’t require it.”

As for the Board, DoBell said they could evaluate whether he worked with them as a team and whether they were able to create a strategic plan.

  1. The Superintendent of Three Forks Schools is required to live in the District. If you are the successful candidate, what are your plans regarding this requirement?

Sullivan: “If I’m a successful candidate, my house is for sale immediately.”

Dobell: “I do live in Three Forks.

  1. What are your long-term goals? Where do you plan to be five or 10 years from now?

Sullivan: “Long term goals? I want to be a superintendent in a school this year.”

Sullivan said he doesn’t have aspirations to become a professor or jump ship to a bigger school district. He has only applied for the Three Forks Superintendent position because he said he believes it is a good school district and he would like to be near to his mother in Butte and his son who will be attending Montana State University next year.

DoBell: “This opportunity has come available and I have a decade of being an administrator and I think I have more to offer. I’d love to help the elementary folks. Being a superintendent would give me an opportunity to see everybody. Long-term goals? I was in Stevensville for 12 years. I think my record shows I’m a person who stays put. Research shows stability is vital to the success of the district.”

  1. What is your ideal salary for this position? (The job was advertised at $80,000-$87,000 per year.)

Sullivan: “With my experience I’d be looking somewhere near $84,000 to $85,000.”

DoBell: “I think that a commensurate salary at the upper end of that would be appropriate; so $85,000 to $87,000.”