Mary Hendricks-Harris is looking to the future when it comes to her new job as the Francis Howell School District superintendent, but not before confronting the past.
“I think the superintendent of schools is always a challenging job,” Hendricks-Harris said. “Certainly we [Francis Howell] have some financial struggles ahead of us, but I’m excited once we get beyond that. There is the work of the district – the improvement planning, the strategic plan and engaging the community. It’s an exciting time as well as a challenging time.”
Hendricks-Harris, now the district’s chief academic officer, takes over as superintendent July 1. She has worked in the district since 2006, and was selected after an extensive national search, according to district officials.
The board approved a three-year contract for Hendricks-Harris, 50, with an initial annual salary of $210,000. She succeeds Superintendent Pam Sloan, who retires June 30 after 23 years in the district.
Hendricks-Harris takes over a school district with more than 18,000 students, making it one of the largest in St. Charles County. She will have to confront some difficulties within the district.
Six years of lowered property values, increasing costs, a special tax levy expiring and continued underfunding by the state have hurt district finances. Last August, district voters rejected a 90-cent property tax increase, prompting $4 million in budget cuts for the 2016-17 school year including the elimination of 29 jobs.
The board also has not been unified about placing another tax increase proposal before voters, opting not to place a measure on the April 5 ballot despite having voted last September to do so.
“One of the first things we need to do is close that gap between revenues and expenditures,” Hendricks-Harris said. “That will be a big thing for us in moving forward in the coming the year. Beyond that, in order to continue on our path and make sure that our students are successful, we need to engage our whole community.”
She added, “Another big project in the coming year for us is will be writing a strategic plan to set the direction for the district and identify what our next five- to ten-year priorities will be.”
To deal with the district’s financial issues, having a unified board to support a financial solutions is key, she said.
“I think our board understands that desire to have unified front,” she said. “I do think part of what I can do to help is that I can bring them together on common ground.”
Hendricks-Harris has been the district’s chief academic officer since 2010, and earlier served as director of adult learning and program evaluation.
“I do think one of the things I have is ten years of Francis Howell experience,” she said. That experience has helped her understand the district and “be able to hit the ground running.” She said knowing the district’s people, its issues, and understanding “our journey on school improvements” will help, especially as she starts the job.
While questions remain about finances, the district’s academic performance has been good. Francis Howell was one of the top-performing districts in St. Charles and St. Louis counties in 2015, according to state test results.
But Hendricks-Harris said she’s worried that future student performance may be affected by staff turnover and cuts the district has had to make, including 150 positions in recent years. Cuts in academic areas make it tough to maintain student performance at current levels and maintain state accreditation standards, she said.
Other factors affecting the district are its minimum bonding capacity and a board election in April, which may change its composition.
Engaging the whole community will mean reaching out to different groups other than parents with school-age children.
“We knew after we looked at our survey a few months ago that one of the groups we didn’t have involved was our senior citizens,” Hendricks-Harris said.
The district has started a senior citizen “pals” group, and also may establish a senior advisory group, she said.
To enhance communications, Hendricks-Harris said the district plans to mail a newsletter to district patrons, after having discontinued it in the past.
Hendricks-Harris said the district’s demographics are changing – the district is getting older with less of the new residential development that has fueled its fast growth over the last few decades.
“We still have some potential [for residential growth] with the Page Avenue Extension [Route 364] going in but our enrollment has been flat over the last few years,” Hendricks-Harris said. “We’re watching it very closely.”