Budget shortfalls, funding woes won't be new to future Norwich superintendent

Norwich — Budget shortfalls, debates over closing school buildings and state and local funding cuts are all major issues that have enveloped the Norwich school district in recent years, but they also can describe what future Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow has experienced in South Kingstown, R.I.

Stringfellow, 52, the superintendent in South Kingstown for the past 10 years, was named the new Norwich superintendent Tuesday night by the Board of Education, which approved a three-year contract with a starting salary of $185,000. She will start July 1, succeeding current Superintendent Abby Dolliver, who will retire June 30.

South Kingstown school officials said Wednesday that Stringfellow is ready for the challenges that running the Norwich district will present, many of them similar to what South Kingstown has faced. The South Kingstown district has two middle schools, four elementary schools, a high school and a budget this year of $61.2 million.

“In one sentence: Norwich’s gain is South Kingstown’s loss,” said South Kingstown School Committee member Michelle Brousseau, who also teaches part time at Three Rivers Community College. “She has been what I would classify as a visionary leader. I spent 32 years (teaching) in public schools and I’ve seen a lot of administrators come and go. I just think she has brought so much to this district. I’m very sad to see her leave. I think it would be a wonderful opportunity for her in Norwich, but it is a huge loss for our district.”

Brousseau said Stringfellow listens to concerns by all parties, administrators, teachers, parents and members of the public on major issues and in South Kingstown set up regular meetings to discuss issues with representatives from each school in the district.

“She had passion for her job and contributed some brilliant ideas to South Kingstown,” current school committee Chairwoman Stephanie Canter said in an email response to a request for comments on Stringfellow’s selection as Norwich superintendent. “I wish her success in Norwich!”

Media coverage by the Narragansett Times of budget seasons in recent years called Stringfellow’s budget challenges “tricky,” tough and contentious. Battles over the possible closing of one elementary school and one middle school met with public criticism and backlash, and state and local funding cuts led to discussions of school staffing cuts.

Unlike Norwich, however, Stringfellow’s Rhode Island district has seen a rapid decline in enrollment, from about 4,000 to about 3,000 over the past several years. And while Norwich was bolstered by Connecticut state grant funding through the Alliance District and Commission Network School improvement programs, South Kingstown faces a proposed drop in state funding of $711,000 in the coming fiscal year, a continuation of steady funding decreases attributed to a change in state funding formula nine years ago.

But in 2017, Stringfellow was honored as the Rhode Island superintendent of the year by the Rhode Island Superintendents’ Association, with accomplishments cited that included technology initiatives, such as laptop computers at the high school, and the launching of a pioneer dual-language Spanish immersion program starting in kindergarten. She also created an alternative credit recovery program for high school students and partnered with Columbia University on a reading and writing program for the district.

"I think she is a kids-first superintendent,” said Peace Dale Elementary School Principal Lisa Wilson, who was hired by Stringfellow. “She’s an outside-the-box kind of thinker. She makes sure we’re providing students with different ways of learning and approaches to learning.”

Wilson said she will keep in touch with Stringfellow, whom she considers a professional mentor.

As for the budget and other issues the new Norwich superintendent will face, Wilson said Stringfellow is up to the challenge.

“She has thick skin and she’s ready to pull her sleeves up,” Wilson said. “She does like to work collaboratively. I think she’ll be fine. She’s a problem-solver. It’s nice to work with a leadership team, and she will reach out to them and for their ideas.”

Preston Superintendent Roy Seitsinger, the former Westerly superintendent, worked with Stringfellow through the association during his time in Rhode Island.

“She definitely has the well-being and success of students as her highest priority,” Seitsinger said. “She has a training and background in financial matters. That will help her a lot. She’s very intelligent and can present strong arguments to the public. She communicates well with the public.”

Seitsinger called Dolliver “an outstanding person,” and her departure a loss for Norwich. “But Kristen is an excellent selection.”

Dolliver guided Stringfellow on a tour of Norwich schools Tuesday prior to the vote by the Board of Education. Dolliver said her impression of Stringfellow was that she is very comfortable in the new position, excited about it and very “kid-centric.”

Dolliver said she will be in touch with Stringfellow during the next two months of transition time. She said Stringfellow has done a lot of research on the Norwich district already and will have “a lot of weekend meetings” with her, since Stringfellow will be finishing the school year in South Kingstown.

c.bessette@theday.com

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