Seidenwurm says time in Clovis rollercoaster ride

CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Clovis Municipal Schools Superintendent Rhonda Seidenwurm will finish her five years with Clovis at the end of June.

By Liliana Castillo: CNJ staff writer

Superintendent Rhonda Seidenwurm, the first female superintendent in Clovis, describes her five years at the helm of Clovis Municipal Schools as a rollercoaster ride.

A week after Seidenwurm took the job in Clovis, it was announced that Cannon Air Force Base was headed for closure and the district needed to prepare for downsizing.

After a year of uncertainty about the future of the base, it was given a new mission and the district had to turn around and prepare for growth.

“I fell in love with this community the first year I moved here. Just watching the community pull together to save Cannon was amazing. And how can you not fall in love with a group of people who are audacious enough to think they can take a base off the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) list?” she said.

Seidenwurm announced in January she would resign at the end of the school year after five years with the district. Her last day is June 25.

She was hired in April of 2005, replacing Neil Nuttall. Nuttall left at the end of 2004 to become president of North Central Missouri College.

When she moved here, she said her goals focused on instruction. Adapting to a growing Air Force base was never part of her plan for Clovis.

“A goal I never conceived of has worked out very well. We have a community that is willing to pass bonds to have our share to build a new middle school and the expertise in our operations department to get us every penny we deserve,” Seidenwurm said.

Funding has been one of the greatest challenges Seidenwurm faced in Clovis.

“It’s the same in Clovis as it is across the country. All our voters can do is give us money for capital outlay. I’m disappointed that the state Legislature has given less and less percent of the budget to education. It’s an alarming development,” she said. “They expect us to continue to perform miracles with kids with no resources.”

Seidenwurm began in education as an English teacher.

“They come to us hungry, they haven’t slept, maybe they’re afraid and we teach them and that’s a miracle. It requires breakfast programs and lunch programs, nurses and social workers and reasonable class sizes. Somewhere along the line we need to decide if our kids are worth our investment,” Seidenwurm said.

Executive Director of Personnel Rhonda Roberts said Seidenwurm always kept her focus on children.

“What I appreciate about her is that she always remained focused on meeting children’s needs, and that’s what it’s all about,” Roberts said.

Seidenwurm said she has depended on the principals to help her make any decisions that affect students, noting that “the worst decisions I’ve ever made, I made by myself.”

The superintendent said she highly values the input from the District Advisory Council, which is made up of a parent and the principal from each school. Those parents are elected by other parents at the school, she said.

When she arrived in Clovis, Seidenwurm’s first goal was to create common assessments.

“We needed a system to ensure every child at every grade level had some level of expectation as far as basic skills. Every child is different but it was critical for the district to define a baseline,” she said.

Seidenwurm said prior to the common assessments, a lesson differed by grade and sometimes by teacher.

Seidenwurm established the CMS Education Foundation, which provides grants for teachers who want to do projects in their classroom that regular funding can’t pay for.

Seidenwurm said she couldn’t be sure the foundation would last, until it recently secured a $2.5 million endowment from Southwest Cheese. The endowment consists of $100,000 annually for the next 25 years.

Seidenwurm said that is an example of the amount of the support the community has for the school district.

“We have 8,400 kids and no charter schools. That’s a concrete example of that support,” she said.

Seidenwurm said Clovis has a reputation for supporting its schools.

“When I applied for Clovis, there were only two districts I was interested in,” Seidenwurm said. “I took Clovis for the reputation it has of supporting its schools. When I look at a district, I look at what it can do. It (Clovis) can pass a bond election, it can form parent groups, it can volunteer, businesses can give a lot of money. These indicators are all strong in Clovis.”

Seidenwurm’s time in Clovis wasn’t without controversy. She pushed controversial initiatives and dealt with trying issues.

• February 2006: Seidenwurm rescinds a recommendation she made to the school board to close Ranchvale Elementary. Seidenwurm made her recommendation on fears of a $1.7 million deficit for the upcoming school year. But new Legislature budgets, and the possibility of an expansion at nearby Cannon Air Force Base, persuaded her to not close the school.

• January 2007: The Clovis Municipal Schools Board of Education approved a plan to convert Gattis Junior High into a ninth-grade center, effective in the fall. Seventh- and eighth-grade students would be redistributed to Marshall and Yucca middle schools under the plan. About a dozen parents urged board members to spend more time researching the proposal, but the board was unanimous in approving the change.

• May 2008: Seidenwurm said at a board meeting that Clovis High School would put in a policy providing more oversight on student publications.

Furor arose when the CHS yearbook, the Plainsman, came out with a section on relationships, and included lesbian couples.

Critics of the yearbook said homosexuality is a sin and was not an appropriate subject in the yearbook. Supporters said the yearbook staff did the right thing by including gays as a part of the community.

• December 2009: Clovis High boys basketball coach J.D. Isler was suspended by the New Mexico Activities Association for the season for recruiting allegations, and was subsequently fired by Seidenwurm.

Isler filed an injunction in district court delaying the action, and coached until February, when the order was dissolved. Isler was reinstated on Feb. 19, when a federal judge ruled the NMAA erred in suspending Isler based on “multiple levels of hearsay” and said the school district did not independently investigate the matter.

Isler offered to drop a potential lawsuit against the district in exchange for allowing him to serve out the remaining year of his contract. The board accepted the offer in March.

• April 2010: The Concerned Citizens of Curry County, a coalition made up of the local League of United Latin American Citizens and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, demanded the immediate removal of Seidenwurm. The group alleged Seidenwurm and her administration pushed out minority leaders across the district.

Data kept by Clovis schools shows the number of minorities in administrative and supervisory roles has increased since 2005.

While the last few months of her time in Clovis have been challenging, Seidenwurm said it’s important for an administrator to remain optimistic and have a good sense of humor.

“Those are two qualities that have gotten me and the people I work with through tough times,” she said.

Her co-workers agree. First-year Clovis High School Principal Wayne Marshall said Seidenwurm is a people person.

“We’re in the people business,” Marshall said. “We need to be talking to people and she’s a people person. She’s easy to get to know. She’s honest and straightforward about her expectations.

“I aspire to be a superintendent at some point, and I think she’s a good mentor,” he said.

Seidenwurm said her five years in Clovis were a positive experience.

“I wouldn’t trade the last five years for anything. The overall experience of having the honor of leading Clovis Municipal Schools is one I wouldn’t trade,” she said.