Ted DeTurk knew the question was coming.
Could DeTurk, currently superintendent of a small, rural Nebraska school district, make the leap to top official at Nebraska's fourth-largest district?
“Leadership is leadership,” DeTurk, 47, told the nearly 70 people gathered at the Papillion-La Vista Schools office for Monday's public forum.
DeTurk said he would rely on Papillion-La Vista's strong administrative staff and his experience in his small district. DeTurk said he drafts the budget, hires, fires, develops curriculum and assesses achievement.
DeTurk spent about 50 minutes answering questions, which included his reaction to the Common Core State Standards, how to stop bullying, and the pros and cons of merit pay for teachers.
The forum was part of the final stages of the district's search for a successor for Rick Black, who will retire June 30.
The format will be repeated at 7 p.m. today with the other finalist, Andy Rikli, assistant superintendent at Westside Community Schools.
School board members are expected to make their selection this week.
DeTurk, wearing a black suit and red tie, said as the forum opened that being selected as a finalist was “truly an honor.”
He credited Nebraska schools for teaching him life skills and his years in the Army and Army Reserves during the 1980s for teaching him honor, duty and self-discipline.
His marriage to wife Dawn has “been all about loyalty, commitment and cooperation,” he said. Dawn DeTurk attended the forum, along with their daughter, Devyn; son, Dustin; and Dustin's fiancee, Elyse Clark.
DeTurk has been superintendent in West Point since 2004. The district encompasses the towns of West Point and Beemer. West Point, with about 3,400 people, is 70 miles northwest of Omaha. Beemer has a population of about 700.
The West Point School District presents challenges, DeTurk said. About 55 percent of students come from low-income families. By comparison, about 23 percent of students in the Papillion-La Vista School District are low-income.
Asked about the controversial Learning Community law, he said it appears to be “flawed legislation.”
The Learning Community creates an extra layer of government, takes away local control and appears to have little impact on academic achievement, he said.
On bullying, he said: “Sadly, bullying's going to take place in every school.” But there are effective anti-bullying programs, specifically Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, DeTurk said. “It has to start with a teaching and learning opportunity,” he said.
He said he would not cut theater and fine arts, calling them “good for kids.”
Asked whether schools were inflating grades, he said grade point averages and ACT scores are not the only ways to measure college-readiness. The ACT doesn't, for example, measure a student's work ethic, he said.
DeTurk said West Point improved reading achievement by adopting Reading Mastery, a direct-instruction reading program.
He praised Papillion-La Vista's academies as “phenomenal.” He said that West Point, like Papillion-La Vista, has academies in the fields of health and alternative energy.
West Point has helped high-achieving students by compacting, or accelerating, the curriculum, DeTurk said. West Point groups students by reading ability, so a second-grader strong in reading may attend class with fourth-graders, he said.
He said he has no problem with a gifted eighth-grader taking geometry. Kids always can be challenged with higher material, DeTurk said.
“I guarantee you we're not going to run out of math.”
DeTurk said he is a “huge” proponent of early childhood education. West Point's program is more academically focused than most, he added.
Asked how he would deal with boundary changes in the fast-growing Papillion-La Vista district, he said he needed to learn more about the district but is experienced with mergers. One merger, with Beemer, was successful; but another, with Scribner-Snyder, was not, he said.
On merit pay, DeTurk said an educational service unit once proposed that West Point participate in a grant that would have provided merit pay for teachers. The grant eventually wasn't funded, but the process prompted a serious discussion with teachers, he said.
“It was a real difficult discussion. I did not enjoy it, and neither did they.”
He said he didn't know if people who choose a career in the field of education are motivated by pay.
DeTurk was unequivocal about his opposition to the Common Core. Nebraska is one of five states that have rejected the standards, the merits of which are hotly debated.
He said he doubts Common Core standards are more rigorous than Nebraska's. They are just a tool to help educators — and that it is help that Nebraska doesn't need, DeTurk said.
“I think it's OK to say 'We're doing fine, leave us alone,'” he said.
DeTurk also was quizzed about Papillion-La Vista having boys baseball fields but no softball fields for girls. He said he would look into facility inequities and what to do about it.
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