Kyrene Schools Governing Board is moving ahead with hiring Assistant Superintendent Laura Toenjes to replace retiring Superintendent Dr. Jan Vesely.
The board last week voted 3-0 to authorize the district’s general counsel to enter into contract talks with Toenjes, and is expected to ratify the contract before Thanksgiving.
The vote on contract talks came as the three board members at the meeting seemed almost apologetic about their process and speed in selecting a replacement for Vesely.
They also stressed that Toenjes was qualified and had passed a rigorous interview with the board.
After Vesely announced on Oct. 5 her retirement, the board immediately said it would first seek internal candidates with an eye toward making a replacement decision by Thanksgiving. Toenjes was the only internal applicant.
Two board members were absent at the Nov. 10 meet. Margaret Pratt just had a baby.
John King also was absent, missing some citizens who wanted him to resign, saying his voter registration record shows he no longer lives in the district. King told the AFN he still maintains a residence in the district and that his attorney has proof
Both board President Michael Myrick, who is leaving the board next month after opting against reelection, and member Michelle Fahy said they had received numerous emails and phone calls from residents who expressed concern that the board was moving so quickly on replacing Vesely.
And member Kevin Walsh stressed the negotiations with Toenjes will cover both compensation and the length of her contract while Myrick noted that when he came on the board four years ago, Vesely had already been hired by the preceding board.
“She’s gone through the whole process,” Walsh said of Toenjes, citing letters of recommendation the board received.
“She’s met with focus groups and I think through this process she’s demonstrated her passion for sure and her qualifications,” Walsh added.
Calling the selection of a superintendent “probably one of the most important jobs that any school board member can participate in,” Fahy said Vesely’s unexpected departure required quick action.
“I know that we are doing something in a very short time frame and it feels like a very rushed process,” Fahy said. “It feels rushed to me as well.”
She said Vesely’s planned departure at the end of December “put us in a challenging position.”
“I think that part of why it feels very rushed is that we do have a very short amount of time to make this decision the board did decide to do a job,” Fahy said.
“I hear all of the concerns,” she continued, adding she had been “hoping that we might have some external applicants.”
But she also cited the crisis created by the pandemic.
“I really need to put all of my own personal feelings and maybe your frustrations aside and really genuinely consider what I think is best for the Kyrene District at this time,” Fahy said. “My number one goal is that we have someone in place who can take over who has Kyrene’s best interest at heart and is knowledgeable about Kyrene and kind of knows where we are going.”
She also said the board met with Toenjes for more than four hours in her job interview and that she was convinced of Toenjes’ genuine care and respect and concern about the staff and students and Kyrene right now.”
Fahy also said that given the rising number of COVID-19 cases, she felt at some point Kyrene will have to close campuses again.
“We’re in the middle of this pandemic and I expect that things are going to get worse before it gets better. I think at some point we’re going to go into closure,” she said.
“My number one concern is the health and safety of our students and staff,”
she said. “And I don’t mean just their physical health but their mental and emotional health.”
She also said the district needs consistency right now and that once the new board members learn the ropes of their duties and know Toenjes better, they can then decide “whether they want to move forward…maybe continuing with the person that we picked or maybe making a different decision.”
Toenjes, a Chandler resident, was hired shortly after Vesely became superintendent in 2016. Both worked together in the same Tucson district prior to that.
Both Fahy and Myrick also cited the severe teacher shortage in Arizona.
Myrick said he was concerned about having an experienced executive team in place so that Kyrene can compete with districts for high-quality teachers.
“For me it’s just that stability is such a huge component, especially in the middle of a pandemic,” Myrick said. “We were harder on our interview with Miss Toenjes than we would have been on an external candidate.”
“We asked some very, very difficult and challenging questions,” he said.