Marjorie C. Chiafery: Righting the Ship By Broadening the Base

by Jay P. Goldman

In her 27 years as an administrator in Merrimack, N.H., Marge Chiafery can legitimately claim to have seen the best of times and the worst. The high moments were the earlier years when Merrimack’s job-sharing initiative, teacher evaluation system and middle school project promoting parent-child communication were emulated statewide. The lowest points were those in the mid-’90s when the Christian Coalition made the community a beachhead for its assault on public education.

Chiafery, exhibiting the modesty that endears her to stakeholders, believes every experience, even the painful ones, are an opportunity for personal growth, a chance for working in more inclusive ways. The turbulence of the last decade has taught her about “broadening the base” to include the voices of those without a natural connection to the schools. “You need to say, ‘Hey, they are part of the town, they pay taxes and they need to be part of the process,” says Chiafery, who was appointed Merrimack’s superintendent in 2001.

Her interest in capturing divergent opinions on key school district decisions stems in part from the turmoil she watched the schools suffer when religious conservatives, initially promoting an anti-tax platform, gained the steering wheel of the governing board. The new majority started to dismantle some of the bellwether programs that Chiafery, as assistant superintendent of curriculum, had shaped in favor of promoting creationism in the teaching of science, adding a daily moment of silence and precluding frank discussions of sexual activity and orientation in health classes.

The battle over the Christian Coalition’s agenda in Merrimack, a 4,900-student district on the state’s border with Massachusetts, brought the glare of network TV news to board meetings that drew 500 people.

Ken Coleman, who temporarily lost a seat on the school board during that time, says Chiafery “bore the huge brunt” of the curricular attacks. That’s when he first noticed her strength of character and resiliency. “She was working behind the scenes to keep the integrity of the school system in place, so as to not lose a lot of good people and blunt the force of some changes being promoted,” says Coleman, now the board’s chair.

If this was a growth opportunity, Chiafery spurted a foot in stature. By the time civility was restored to district governance, she knew exactly how she wanted to prepare for two critical spending referenda — one to build an $18 million middle school and the other to create the district’s first kindergarten backed by state construction money.

“What she’s best at is not being afraid of putting people on committees who come on with opposite views of where you want to go or may be critics of the school district,” Coleman says. “She’s found, at the end of the day, with proper information you can convert people.”

The strategy worked wonders. The district’s budget advisory committee, composed of a range of townspeople, proposed wording changes in the ballot items that Chiafery believes led to supermajority passage of both measures.

Of that momentous date, April 8, 2003, and the feeling of exhilaration, the superintendent says: “I will never forget it — even in the nursing home.”

Even as that triumph rings as her crowning accomplishment, Chiafery has championed the collaborative route from her earliest years as a professional educator. In her first teaching post in the Rochester, N.Y., suburb of Fairport, Chiafery initiated a team-taught kindergarten and 1 st grade. Later, during her first principalship in Merrimack, she introduced the concept of job sharing for teachers and helped the superintendent create a new post of school-community coordinator.

A native of Castle Creek in New York state’s Southern Tier, Chiafery now is perfectly comfortable with her circumstances in Merrimack, calling it “the perfect place to grow and learn.” She’s rejected several overtures for superintendencies in other places, especially after serving as president of the state administrators association — one of only three women to do so in its 64 years of existence and one of the few educators, male or female, to fill the role before reaching the superintendency.

Despite re-establishing Merrimack as a system on the rise, Chiafery regularly returns to the theme of how much she still has to learn. “Places have good times and bad times. I ask (about the latter), ‘What did you learn from it? What is the silver lining in the cloud?’”

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

 

Bio Stats:

Marge Chiafery

Currently:
Superintendent, Merrimack, N.H.

Earlier:
Assistant superintendent and principal, Merrimack

Age:
58

Greatest Influence on Career:
Three administrators. Claude Leavitt, the superintendent who hired me to be an assistant elementary principal; my mentor, Ken Taylor, the elementary principal who guided my work for two years; and Superintendent Jim O’Neil, under whose tutelage I served for 13 years and who supported me in becoming his successor.

Best Professional Day:
The gratification I feltApril 8, 2003, when the community passed two significant spending referenda bearing a huge impact on student learning: a bond to build a new middle school and approval to start kindergarten this fall.

Books at Bedside:
Leadership Promises for Every Day by John C. Maxwell; My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult; Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons From the Great Antartic Explorer by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell

Biggest Blooper:
In my first month as a superintendent, we announced plans to install a hand-recognition device at the front entrance to the high school addition as a new security measure. Parents and community members expressed their great displeasure in the newspaper and to board members because they considered the tool an invasion of privacy.

A Reason Why I'm an AASA Member:
What I’ve learned at the national conference facilitates efforts in my district. I watched a team from Huntingdon Valley, Pa., present on incentive pay. Their materials and later consultation helped me formulate our pay-for-performance program.