Compliments and criticisms
SUMMIT COUNTY – Schools Superintendent Wes Smith is preparing to become a “free radical.”
“I’m not retiring,” Smith said last week. “I am being liberated.”
For about 20 years, Smith has made decisions for entire school districts, including Summit. He has been responsible for school staff, faculty and students. Now that he’s retiring, Smith said he’s looking forward to being responsible for only himself and his family.
Once he shucks his immense responsibilities and can be free to think of education – without its business side – he plans to be a “free radical” with plenty of opinions.
On Thursday, Smith will wrap up five years as Summit Schools Superintendent. He was able to take an early retirement when Oregon, where Smith worked for about 20 years, offered eligible retirement plan participants an early buyout option.
After more than 30 years in education, Smith said he is ready to pursue other opportunities.
“I’ve got some other things I want to do – and my wife doesn’t want to be married to the superintendent anymore,” he said, laughing. “I think we really want to take a different view of the world. We’re really looking forward to spending more time together.”
The best of Wes
In this day and age, it’s somewhat uncommon to have a superintendent serve for as many as five years and also leave on good terms with a school district, said school board President Bill Pelham.
“It’s a tough job,” said Jim Wheeler, a Frisco resident and former school board member. “You’re being stretched three ways – actually four. First, there’s the administration, then there are the teachers, then there’s the parents … and then there are seven school board members. And they’re all coming at you from different directions. It’s no wonder most of them don’t last very long.”
The Summit School District was in turmoil when Smith accepted the job and his primary task was to restore financial stability, which he accomplished in three years.
“The guy is incredible,” Wheeler said. “He just handled (the disorder) like water off a duck’s back. He was always the one with all the enthusiasm and all the optimism.”
But Smith’s financial savvy wasn’t his only asset as superintendent.
“So many educators fit a mold,” Wheeler said. “Wes is not one of those people. He’s an innovator, he’s a thinker.”
Smith advocated for a master contract with the district faculty – a negotiated document that defines the relationship between the teachers and the district, said Jerry Fabyanic, a former Summit High teacher and president of the Summit Education Association.
“It was an incredible feat,” Fabyanic said. There was a lot of fear among teachers and board members when the contract was proposed, he said. Ultimately, the board approved it unanimously and teachers approved it by 150 to 7.
Smith also had a gift for discussing matters professionally – even if they were contentious.
“There wasn’t anything we couldn’t talk about and hammer out,” Fabyanic said, adding that he and Smith often represented different interests and were known to disagree.
“We always agreed to disagree,” Wheeler said of Smith and the school board. “When we voted it was over and that was the end of it.”
Perhaps one of Smith’s greatest tributes to the district was that he always put the children first, Wheeler said.
“The decisions he made were based on kids,” he said. “He wanted this to be one of – if not the best – school systems in the state.”
Criticisms and regrets
Ironically, one of Smith’s greatest regrets is that he didn’t spend more time with the district’s students.
“It’s been my own criticism of myself since I’ve been here,” Smith said. “I wish I could have spent more time in the schools and known more of the kids.”
His first year of concentrated legal and financial matters set a course for being officebound, Smith said.
When asked what his critics might say about him, Smith said they might say he’s an authoritarian, talks too much and listens too little.
“They see me as not collaborative enough,” he said. “I really do believe authoritarian is an overstatement. I’d say, rather than authoritarian, I was too directive sometimes. I talk too much – that’s true. But people don’t know how much I listen.”
“I’m sure somewhere in this school district, there are people who thought Wes was overbearing or a dictator,” Wheeler said, “but compared to other districts, the criticism was really almost nil.”
Opponents might say he was too critical, Smith said.
“I pushed and was not afraid to be critical of the actions of staff,” he said. “I think part of my job was to keep the expectations high. My belief that we can do better is a belief in the people. I think high expectations and pushing hard is an affirmation, not a negative.”
They might also say he didn’t recognize people’s contributions, Smith said of himself.
“That I would regret,” he said. “I don’t regret the other stuff. I wouldn’t do too many things very much differently.”
Whether one is happy or sad to see Smith go, there are a few things for which he would like to be remembered.
“I always put the needs of the kids of this district first and took care of this district,” he said. “Whatever you think of me, I hope you know that I did my damndest.”
Smith’s last day with the district is July 31. The school board hired Lynn Spampinato, former regional director of Victory Schools in Philadelphia, to succeed him. Spampinato joined the district Monday and will work with Smith until he retires next week.
Lu Snyder can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 203, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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