It wasn’t difficult for Michael Beresford to come up with a theme for the 2018-19 school year.
“Together We’re Better” is his mantra for his first year as superintendent of Carmel Clay Schools. It’s a message he believes students, teachers and the community at-large needs to hear and take to heart after a school year of turmoil.
“I just got the impression that we really need to pull our team together, because if we do that, we’re better,” Beresford said. “There are a lot of songs about being better together, and I didn’t want it to sound like a Carpenters song from the ’70s, but it just kind of came clear like it does every year.”
Beresford, 58, who served as an assistant superintendent at Hamilton Southeastern Schools prior to taking the top role at CCS, has already become known around Carmel for fist-bump greetings and his relaxed demeanor. The Fishers resident shared his thoughts on his new role and several controversial issues that arose during the last school year.
Beresford’s first day with CCS was July 1, five months after the resignation of his predecessor, Nicholas Wahl, but only one day after Wahl stopped receiving his salary and partial benefits.
The school board placed Wahl and former human resources director Corrine Middleton on administrative leave in October 2017 to conduct a review of district leadership. School officials remained tight-lipped on what they called a personnel decision, but many speculated they were involved in a romantic relationship. The school board passed a non-fraternization policy establishing boundaries for employees in personal relationships in March.
Beresford has consistently declined to comment on the circumstances that led to the top job opening at CCS and said he’d be working to build rapport as a new superintendent no matter the situation.
“I’d have to earn my trust if nothing had happened,” he said. “If you had a 25-year veteran (I’d replaced) with names all over buildings and benches all over the district, I’d still come in with, ‘Who’s the new guy? What’s he all about?’”
Before Beresford arrived, CCS Associate Supt. for Business Affairs Roger McMichael and Assistant Supt. of Curriculum, Instruction & Assessment Amy Dudley served as co-interim superintendents in addition to their regular duties. With everyone back in their normal roles, Beresford expects the “bumpy ride” of the 2017-18 school year to naturally smooth out.
“Whenever you take people who have full-time jobs and on top of that are serving as co-interim superintendents, that’s a lot of work. I’ve been in that position when we’ve had interim superintendents. It adds a level of stress to the system,” he said. “Let’s calm everything down, let’s get our processes back in place, let’s get the stakeholders involved and let’s take a good look and try to balance out the best way moving forward.”
Throughout the previous school year, several issues led some CCS parents and other stakeholders to accuse CCS of lacking transparency.
Beresford said his philosophy is to offer as much information as he can without violating privacy laws.
“There’s been a trend in schools to just put out a lot of what I would call meaningless information,” he said. “There’s such a lack of detail it just makes parents’ eyes roll, so I try to be as forthcoming as possible.”
He said he’s had many tough conversations where he’s had to relay news that parents didn’t want to hear but that they often thank him for being straightforward.
“The more communication you put out, the less anger you have about the process,” he said. “A lot of times people are more upset about the process than they are the actual outcome.”
In March, CCS announced a plan to place students in the high-ability Challenge program in classrooms with general education students as part of a two-year comprehensive review of elementary programming.
The decision didn’t sit well with many parents of high-ability students, who openly criticized the plan. A month later, the district put all changes to the Challenge program on hold.
Beresford said he plans to make a decision on changes to the high-ability program and other issues that affect elementary students – such as school start times – this year. But first he wants to gather feedback from anyone who’d like to offer it.
“One of the complaints I’ve heard in a couple instances is (parents) felt that they didn’t have time or the opportunity to give their input before a decision was proposed,” Beresford said. “That’s something we can do better.”
CLOSING ORCHARD PARK
Another issue that troubled many families was the decision to close Orchard Park Elementary and build a new elementary school 5 miles away. The school board voted 4-1 to approve the plan less than a week before Beresford’s first day with CCS.
Although he was not part of the discussion, Beresford said he understands why it was such a heartwrenching decision.
“Orchard Park has been a real gem of the district, so people should be sad,” he said. “It’s a special place, but at the same time we have a responsibility to give a 21st-century education to everybody in the district.”
Beresford said he’s focused on ensuring the new school and rebuilt Carmel Elementary School are “inspiring educational facilities” and that the transition for students into new campuses goes smoothly.
One of Beresford’s first focus areas is school safety, a topic brought to the forefront in Hamilton County after a shooting in May at Noblesville West Middle School.
Beresford praised the protocols already in place at CCS and said he’s working to build consistency across the district. Planned upgrades include changes to school entryways and a two-way communication program for leaving anonymous tips.
CCS has acquired 30 metal-detecting wands through a state program offering them for free, but Beresford said the district will take its time in implementing procedures for using them to make sure it’s done right.
“There’s a tendency when something happens to do something fast and visible,” he said. “We’re not going to do that. We’re going to be very methodical and work best practices in school safety.”
MEET MICHAEL BERESFORD
Favorite pastime: Hiking and biking. Also enjoy music, especially acoustic guitar
Favorite local restaurant: The library, of course as a former English/journalism teacher
Favorite color: Carmel blue and gold
Birthplace: Danville, Ill. (home of Dick Van Dyke)
Favorite vacation location: Anywhere there are trails and breath-taking scenery and adventure
Family: Wife, Lori, and kids Katie, Keagan, and Collin
Most DVR’d TV show: College football
Favorite subject in school: English
Motto to live by: “Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” – Mother Teresa
“As a board we have been very highly focused on the safety of our students. When we south to hire a superintendent there was very specific criteria we were seeking. We couldn’t be more excited to be working with our new superintendent. His depth and breadth of knowledge in safety and his collaborate leadership style can’t be disputed.” –Layla Spanenberg, school board president
“It is exciting to be working with Dr. Beresford. He has demonstrated a willingness to listen and cooperate with teachers. He is quickly building trust with all stakeholders in the district. It is evident that we are continuing to build upon the foundation of cooperation and trust created last year.” –Pete O’Hara, Carmel Teachers’ Association president and Carmel High School teacher
“(Dr. Beresford) is very genuine and insightful and he really understands the loss of Orchard Park Elementary school and the positive impact that school and the educators have made for those students and the community as a whole. He understands all of the factors and implications in this school closing. I have no doubt he will strive to ensure the best holistic education for those students and be mindful of the needs of the community as well.” –Shelly Wood, Orchard Park Presbyterian Church senior pastor and mother of three children in CCS
“From our conversation, I felt that Dr. Beresford cares about involving high ability students’ parents in decision making that affects high ability and gifted programing, and I hope that this will translate into preserving high ability classrooms for elementary school students who require those environments to reach their academic potential.” –Jennifer Zivoin, parent of a high ability student at Forest Dale Elementary