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Greenfield Public Schools

In turbulent tenure, Susan Hollins, as superintendent, helped stabilize Greenfield schools

  • Greenfield Public Schools Superintendent Susan Hollins stands in her office on Tuesday in front of a banner made by Academy of Early Learning students.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Greenfield Public Schools Superintendent Susan Hollins stands in her office on Tuesday in front of a banner made by Academy of Early Learning students.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Greenfield Director of Human Resources Dennis Helmus accepts Superintendent Susan Hollins' final retirement paperwork at the Greenfield Town Offices on Tuesday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Greenfield Director of Human Resources Dennis Helmus accepts Superintendent Susan Hollins' final retirement paperwork at the Greenfield Town Offices on Tuesday.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Retiring Greenfield Public Schools Superintendent Susan Hollins cleans out her antique school book collection from her office on Tuesday, finding a text on "Vocations for Girls" that raises a chuckle.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Retiring Greenfield Public Schools Superintendent Susan Hollins cleans out her antique school book collection from her office on Tuesday, finding a text on "Vocations for Girls" that raises a chuckle.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Retiring Greenfield Superintendent Susan Hollins clears out her antique school textbook collection from her office on Tuesday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Retiring Greenfield Superintendent Susan Hollins clears out her antique school textbook collection from her office on Tuesday.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Greenfield Public Schools Superintendent Susan Hollins stands in her office on Tuesday in front of a banner made by Academy of Early Learning students.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Greenfield Director of Human Resources Dennis Helmus accepts Superintendent Susan Hollins' final retirement paperwork at the Greenfield Town Offices on Tuesday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Retiring Greenfield Public Schools Superintendent Susan Hollins cleans out her antique school book collection from her office on Tuesday, finding a text on "Vocations for Girls" that raises a chuckle.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Retiring Greenfield Superintendent Susan Hollins clears out her antique school textbook collection from her office on Tuesday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

GREENFIELD — Susan Hollins was looking for a good challenge to end her career in education. She found it in the Greenfield schools in 2008: $1 million in debt, no administrators, scores of laid-off teachers and students flocking to neighboring districts.

She almost canceled her second interview for the Greenfield superintendent job. But, she reasoned, “someone has to take the job so I might as well try.”

Hollins, 67, will retire from her superintendent post today. Six years after she was hired as interim superintendent, finances have stabilized, enrollment has grown and the town will soon open part of its brand new $66 million high school this fall.

“She was the perfect person for the perfect storm,” said Mayor William Martin, who has chaired the School Committee this year. “Even though we don’t agree on everything, we’ve always agreed on the end result. We have different ways of getting there and she was certainly able to prove her way was functional and beneficial.”

Still, it hasn’t been smooth sailing. The administration and teachers’ union have clashed in recent years, and a Massachusetts Association of School Committees field representative wrote during the search for Hollins’ successor how the faculty “suffers a crisis of morale because of a perceived lack of communication.”

Hollins has said that while teachers mostly interact with principals, she has tried her best to help every teacher who needed something. Leaders of the Greenfield Education Association declined to comment for this article.

Virtual school: 1st battle

Shortly after she started, Hollins pitched the idea of a “virtual school” — a cyber school that uses the Internet to teach students across the state and a way to bring new revenue into the department. The push for a virtual school first led to battles with the state, then later within a divided School Committee, before the school ultimately became independent altogether.

Even if given the chance to do it all over again, Hollins said she’d likely still float the virtual school idea. She said she had heard from a Pennsylvania superintendent who used a cyber school to bring his department out of bankruptcy.

“A school administrator from somewhere else ... said I had to understand that Greenfield was toxic, and no other district would want to do anything collaborative with Greenfield,” said Hollins.

“Greenfield schools were financially, emotionally and reputationally bankrupt,” she said. “So I thought of a virtual school. The state did not have one, there were students for whom it could be an important option (and) it could give Greenfield a leader instead of a loser reputation.”

Hollins’ administrative team has praised other moves that gave students more choices, including the creation of new programs and schools — like the Math and Science Academy and the Discovery School at Four Corners, an innovation school that emphasizes community and environmental preservation.

They’ve appreciated her willingness to eliminate athletic fees and fight to keep arts in the schools. Hollins has even helped connect schools with pianos that she found in the community.

High School Principal Donna Woodcock said the superintendent was instrumental in securing state approval for the town’s new $66 million high school, which will be completed fully next year.

In the midst of the 2008 financial crisis and School Choice exodus, it wasn’t even a sure thing that Greenfield High School would exist the next year.

“I recall at one School Committee meeting,” said Hollins, “I said something like, ‘You have to decide: Do you want Greenfield to have a high school or not? Because if you want to have a high school, you have to do something.’”

Hollins said that after years of being ignored by the state, she wrote a pointed letter asking why wealthy districts were receiving repair approvals, but not Greenfield.

The state eventually approved the repair request, then discovered it would be cheaper to build a school than to renovate the existing one. The Massachusetts School Building Authority is paying about $42 million of the project’s costs.

None of the School Committee members who hired Hollins in 2008 are on the board today. John Lunt, who led the first search for Hollins, resigned this spring.

“It was her responsibility to get the schools righted and back on a good path and I will always be grateful to her for doing that,” he said.

Working with an ever-changing school board was challenging for the superintendent.

“We switched from a committee that saw its role as policy, finance and facilities ... to a committee interested in day-to-day administrative decisions,” said Hollins.

“It can’t be both ways — the superintendent primarily working with building principals and their teams, and then the School Committee wanting to be involved with decisions the administrators make and not supporting the superintendent working with principals,” she said.

Martin and Donna Gleason were the only current school board members who responded to a request to comment for this article.

Gleason, who worked for Hollins as both a teacher and principal before she joined the School Committee last year, said the superintendent’s incredible ability to organize budgets, staffs and programs has helped make the schools successful again.

“She figured out (how) to bring people back to Greenfield, that they were looking for something to come back to,” said Gleason. “And never, from the minute she started to the day that her job ends, did she stop working for children,” she said. “The lights burned at 3 o’clock. I don’t think they’ll ever get anybody to do that.”

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