Steele tapped to fill superintendent role
With Indian River School District superintendent Susan Bunting having been confirmed this week as the new Secretary of the Delaware Department of Education, the district was facing a vacancy in a vital post during a tense time at one of the fastest-growing districts in the state.
But as the IRSD begins advertising for a permanent replacement, Mark Steele will step up as acting superintendent until June 30. He’s already been Bunting’s right-hand man, as IRSD’s assistant superintendent since July of 2013. Steele came to district office after 14 years as principal at his alma mater, Indian River High School, where he had previously climbed from math and physics teacher to assistant principal.
Even the logistics of the change could prove to be a challenge. In 2013, the IRSD became eligible to have two assistant superintendents, due to its large student population. But the district left one of those positions vacant, choosing to save local district funds while declining the State’s share of the salary for that position.
“Mark is interim, and he’ll finish out the year, and then we’ll go from there,” said Board Member W. Scott Collins.
“Do we divide up that assistant superintendent’s job to the other directors?” Collins asked. “With the referendum coming up and the need of money, you don’t want to add staff because that doesn’t look good, because everybody complains now about [Indian River Education Complex] staff. But … we already send money back because we don’t have a second assistant superintendent.”
So now, IRSD has a new interim leader and two administrative vacancies.
Collins said the school board didn’t discuss Bunting’s actual contract, which would presumably end when she steps up to the state level. She wouldn’t be retiring from the district or state, just moving to another state position.
The school board had much to discuss before rain and coastal flooding canceled the Jan. 23 board meeting. It was rescheduled for Monday, Jan. 30, but was then postponed due to snowfall.
“It’s a big difference, and I learned that this week,” said Steele, who was offered the position by the school board. “I currently do the daily operations,” such as food service, transportation, buildings and grounds. “Now it’s the administrative evaluations, monitoring school visits, making sure I attend the state events for the superintendent, making sure the district has all the information they need to move forward … and I’m secretary of the board.”
After bidding Bunting farewell, Steele said the district will move forward, despite the shakeup in staff.
“It’s a situation where, internally, I think we have a good concept of where we are and where we need to go,” Steele said. “Everyone had their own thoughts and ideas on what to do and how we should do it. … I’m hoping to hit the ground running, especially with the referendum” on March 2.
In that second vote on funding for current expenses, the IRSD is asking for the public’s support for the district by increasing property taxes by 49 cents per $100 of assessed property value (not market value). As a current-expense referendum, it is designed to address the fact that the district needs more money to continue regular operations, not build new buildings — a need the district could address in a future referendum.
Steele said his major goals start with transparency. He’d like the IRSD to create a long-term plan, officially examining future enrollment, expenses and more.
“I think it’s a good business idea, and I think it’s a good community idea. We have to look at where we are and see where we are in five or 10 years,” Steele said. “I think it gives the community a good idea of where we’re going and where we’re headed, and I think that’s a really good thing to do.”
He said he also wants to be a community superintendent, continuing Bunting’s efforts to establish community trust, which he said is something that must be earned.
“First of all, be totally open and honest and transparent with the community, looking at finances and things,” Steele said last week, planning to discuss issues with the board Jan. 30. “We’ve got to get the community more involved,” he said, possibly adding finance meetings or subcommittees, “so there’s not only school board oversight, but community oversight as well.”
Other efforts he plans include being visible at public events, hosting town hall meetings for more discussion and placing financial statements on the district website (many are already listed with monthly school board agendas).
The public meeting schedule for referendum information nights has not been completed, but he applauded the parents and staff who created an ambassadors group to better inform the public about the vote.
Will Steele officially apply for the superintendent position? He joked that he’d answer that closer to July. Until then, he and the school board have a trial period to see how they work together.
“I appreciate the opportunity, that they had enough trust to put me here,” he said.
“I want people to know that we will make the changes that need to be made, to make this school district the best district it can possibly be.
“I think you’ll see a lot of teamwork, with the rest of the administrative group here to keep things running to the end of the year,” Steele said. “We’ll work on those things we feel need to be tweaked.”
Steele praised Bunting’s work as an administrator: “Our district is probably the premier district in the entire state. … There’s a high regard for what she’s done for the Indian River School District, and I think sometimes we lose sight of that.”
Secretary of Education is a fitting position for Bunting, Steele said, and Sussex County is lucky to have one of its own offered a state position of leadership.
“When you go somewhere with her, people know who she is, and they come to her. That’s a level of respect you don’t often see. She is a very intelligent lady. She is also compassionate and … she is just a nice person, and she works very hard at her job.”