Retiring school superintendent Sean Michel takes a look back

Chester. After a painful start nine years ago, when tight funding forced the elimination of 18 jobs, Michel hit his stride. He brought Chester into the 21st century, with an eye on technology, bringing the Chrome Book Initiative, integrated STEM instructi

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  • Superintendent Sean Michel (Photo by Ginny Privitar)

"Superintendent Michel’s visionary leadership will be greatly missed. His legacy at Chester will include the expansion and elevation of academic offerings and forward-looking programs like the Chrome Book Initiative, integrated STEM instruction, robotics, and our Workplace Learning Program. Chester students are well prepared for the challenges of the future because of Mr. Michel’s progressive leadership and guidance."
Principal Denis M. Petrilak, Chester Academy
"His leadership and vision has made him a wonderful boss, but his integrity and compassion make him a great person. He will be missed."
Principal Cindy Walsh, Chester Elementary School

By Ginny Privitar

Chester School District Superintendent Sean Michel is retiring after nine years managing the district. The Chronicle asked him some questions at this capstone of his distinguished career:

Q. What were your most difficult challenges in Chester?

When I first started here. There was a turnover in leadership, and we also had a very rough budget cycle that year and had to eliminate 18 positions. Also being part of changing the culture of the school district and the buildings over the last nine years. I’m very proud of where we are now.

We have really good kids here and we get a lot of complements on the way our kids behave. It’s just the culture here.

Q. How do you mentor teachers?

It’s the personal touch — just getting to know them, letting them know me as a person. I’m very approachable, I’m always out at buses, either in the morning or in the afternoon. I’m in the hallways a lot, in the classrooms, at events —s o I’m present and available.

Q. What was an unpopular or difficult decision you made?

One of the things I’ve been talking to Mr. Petrilak (the Chester Academy principal, who will take over) about is this is a lonely job. As superintendent, you have to look how does a decision affect everything globally, and sometimes that goes against what a principal or somebody else is asking you to do. Let’s go back to when I first got here — having to eliminate 18 positions to balance the budget. We almost had a $3 million deficit due to lack of state aid and other factors. And then the budget failed. We had to make decisions about what do we do about that. But we’ve gotten past that and we’re better for it.

Q. What innovations have you made in school safety?

We are always maintaining the security in our buildings. We have an excellent relationship with the town police, who do regular foot patrols every day in our buildings. In fact, next year, we will have a full-time school resource officer in the building. We do the mandatory eight fire drills, and four lockdown drills with the kids here. The police use our buildings to do their training.

We just upgraded all of our surveillance cameras and added to the district. Every one of our buildings has one point of entry. We have our own security officers here full-time in the building, three in the Academy and one in the elementary school. So we’ve done a lot.

Q. What is the role of technology in education?

Technology is very important. We’ve been recognized for our innovation and for our one-to-one computing program with the Chromebooks. We’ve been recognized by the School Board Association for that. We’ve been also recognized for our robotics program in our elementary school. We have really used technology here — it’s the way of the future, it’s what kids need to know. It’s not about having the "toys," it’s how do we use technology in the classroom? How does it support what we’re teaching?

Technology isn’t the answer for everything, but it’s something our kids do need to know to be competitive. You still have to teach kids how to look things up. How do you know the difference between what is real and what is not? You can’t believe everything on the internet. That’s just as important — teaching kids when something doesn’t look right or sound right. What’s the source? Who is this person who’s writing this?

Q. How do you deal with the ever-rising costs of special education?

That is a big challenge and one we always have to keep in the back of our minds, and have that set-aside money. When you get criticized for having fund balance in your budget — fund balance is used for exactly that. You can have one family with four kids that have special needs services. We’ve had that in the past, and it becomes very expensive. Now, if students are new to the district, we still have to incur those costs. Where does that come from? It comes from our savings account. That’s how we try and plan ahead. We're always probably going to have three or five more kids move in.

Q. What is your greatest professional accomplishment?

Chromebooks, bringing robotics to the elementary school, and being recognized as a top community for music education. Also increasing the number of college-level courses that we offer in the Academy. A kid can graduate here earning 44 college credits. That’s huge for a family, it’s a huge savings in college tuition.

Ten or eleven of our sports teams have been recognized as scholar-athlete teams. We have a graduation rate of above 90 percent every year that I’ve been here. And then, except for my first budget here, we’ve had very successful community support for our budgets. We just finished a $3.5-$3.7 million renovation project of all of our sports fields. So those are things we’re proud of.

Q. What are your concerns about the future of education?

Good question. I think funding, especially in New York. If the state doesn’t start to think about a better or different way of funding public education, it’s going to become a problem. People can only afford so much in their property tax. With the property tax cap, it continues to be more and more difficult for school districts to continue to offer all of the programs they can offer and still keep the number of staff needed to meet all the mandates the state keeps giving us. We have to fund all the mandates they don’t fund. Also here in New York, enrollment is going to become an issue.

I read something today that just in one year, public education has lost around 7,000 students, and that’s going to continue to be an issue going forward. If you don’t have the kids, you can’t offer the programs. So that will become an issue, especially in small schools like Chester.

Q. What are you going to do in retirement?

I don’t know. I’m going to think about it for a while. I just want to be retired for a while and enjoy my family and enjoy being retired and do some traveling, too.

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