Q&A: New superintendent talks about Fargo schools' toughest challenges
FARGO — Rupak Gandhi's first official day as Fargo Public Schools' superintendent was about a month ago, and he's been spending that time visiting every school and meeting staff, parents and summer school students.
He said he inherited a "phenomenal" school district from Jeff Schatz, who was in the top administrative job for six years. But he also inherited challenges that Schatz acknowledged when stepping down in June.
Those include handling students with severe behavioral issues, teacher safety and southside enrollment growth, which Gandhi said he'd ask two task forces and a committee of stakeholders to tackle.
Gandhi, who grew up in California, comes to Fargo from Harrison School District in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he was assistant superintendent of research data and accountability.
The School Board hired him in March and has agreed to pay him $200,000 a year. He now oversees an organization with 3,400 staff members and 11,300 students.
The Forum interviewed Gandhi last week to get a sense of the year ahead. The first day of school is Aug. 23.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What have you been doing since starting your job?
I'm really just sitting down with both internal and external stakeholders and learning about the district.
Fargo Public Schools is a phenomenal organization. I'm really proud to be part of it. I respect what's been here and want to learn from stakeholders:
• What are the district's needs,
• What are some things we need to look at,
• And what's our vision moving forward.
Since I've started here I've had a chance to visit with every school principal and visit every one of our buildings and also visit with organizations we partner with and different individuals.
Q. You've spoken with parents and students also?
I had a chance to meet students at summer school, but obviously school isn't in session. I'm really looking forward to that opportunity when it is. I've attended the citywide PTA meeting as well.
Q. On your learning tour what are some things that pleased you?
One of the things that really stand out to me is our staff are phenomenal. Everyone I've met is just such a passionate and dedicated individual, really looking after what's best for our students.
Q. What priorities do you have in the upcoming school year?
Getting every student what he or she needs to be successful and really providing an equitable education across the board. That's always going to be our mission, which is "achieving excellence by educating and empowering all students to succeed."
We're looking at just different processes to make sure all students have an equitable education.
Q. Can you give an example of these processes you're looking at?
We are going to have a couple of task forces this year.
One is looking at the continuum of special education services we provide to make sure all students are getting a quality education.
Another focus is having a task force to look at early childhood special education needs. That's been growing in terms of enrollment. How do we sustain a high-quality education to those students?
Both task forces will lead into some work around our building usage and capacity and how do we make sure we create a meaningful, long-term facilities plan.
Q. There's a controversy over how the district helps children with severe behavioral issues, especially the proposed Level D facility where they'd be segregated for part of their day. What's your thinking on that issue?
There are two initiatives the district's going to be looking at.
One will be our task force around LRE, short for "least restrictive environment." What we're looking at is how do we provide a full spectrum of special education services for all our students in their ideal setting.
• What are the needs in our district,
• What services do we offer,
• And do we need to offer additional services.
I'm cognizant of the word "segregation" because it's not a segregated school; it's really a matter of what are the level of services that each student needs.
Second, safety is a priority for the district, making sure we're providing a safe environment for both students and staff. We will have a district committee to look at what are some safety goals for the district, what are short- and long-term priorities, and they'll make a recommendation to our board of education.
Q. What are some examples of safety issues the district will look at?
Coming in new, I have the exact same question. I'm in the middle of hosting a variety of listening sessions for staff around safety.
Q. Are you hearing teachers talk about being assaulted by students?
Yes, we have heard some — let's talk about how do we help our students that have demonstrated behaviors that we didn't necessarily see 10, 15 years ago.
I've heard a variety of things:
• How do we address complex behaviors from students?
• How do we provide more social/emotional supports?
• And just looking at our processes around crisis response and emergency management.
Q. Are school shootings also discussed?
Absolutely. We're always going make sure we're providing a safe environment. Every educator's No. 1 goal is to make sure students are safe.
Q. Enrollment growth in the district's south end has raised questions about changing school boundaries that some parents find unsettling. What's your thinking on that issue?
At this point, we don't have any set agenda. That's the reason we are going to have a task force that will include a process for parents and all stakeholders to provide input.
As I said, we're going to have two task forces and that's going to lead into a building capacity usage task force later this year. That's when we're going to really review all of our data, look through enrollment trends, look through demographer projections and identify what's best for our district and our kids.
Q. Will parents be on the task forces?
Parents will be involved. We're just looking at the composition of those task forces but, yeah, we want a wide variety of stakeholders.