Needham public schools superintendent Dan Gutekanst/ Credit: Needham public schools

The School Committee voted unanimously to offer Superintendent of Schools Dan Gutekanst another three-year contract at its June 18 meeting. Gutekanst said that he was honored to accept the offer. 

Tasked with evaluating the superintendent, the committee awarded Gutekanst 110 “exemplaries” out of 147 ratings. The state defines exemplary as “so strong it serves as a model for others regionally or statewide.”

Needham Education Association President Caren Firger said it’s unusual to see so many top ratings on one evaluation, but she wasn’t surprised. “He is an amazing listener and problem solver,” she said. “Dan is not only very intelligent, but incredibly hopeful.” Firger said the teachers union is looking forward to working with Dan for another three years.

“After this many years in the district, he could rest on his laurels, but that never happens,” said School Committee member Connie Barr, who was on the team that hired Gutekanst in 2006. 

According to Education Week, the average tenure for superintendents nationwide is five to six years. At the end of this new contract, Gutekanst will have completed 21 years at the helm of the Needham public schools. 

Gutekanst credits the community for his long-term survival, saying the town is often willing to take the long view, shunning short-term fixes. He said he appreciates that Needham has high, but realistic, expectations. “We can’t make everything happen for everyone because that’s just not possible or sustainable. Also, it’s not always in the best interest of kids.”

As a young teacher, Gutekanst spent seven years teaching English in the Watts neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. Despite the drastic change of setting and the four decades that have elapsed, he said a lot remains unchanged when it comes to education. “What remains constant is the innocence, innovation and energy of young people.”

He also acknowledged a lot has changed in the field — especially in recent years. He mentioned COVID and the work around issues of racial injustice as frequent sources of burnout for many superintendents. 

Gutekanst also said in the past five years parents have become more anxious, worried about everything from school safety to the effectiveness of the math and literacy programs. 

“In the past, children were not privy to the level of their parents’ anxiety. I understand the anxiety that some parents feel, but it’s impacting their children in unintended ways that is not healthy.

“Sometimes the anxiety crowds out the spark,” he said.” The antidote is for adults -– including staff members — to back off and let kids be kids. “Let the kid have an argument with another kid on the playground. Let them figure out some things without the adults hovering in the background, pretending that we can solve everything, because we can’t.”

Gutekanst said it is not uncommon for first graders to text their parents on their smart watches about something that is happening in the moment in the classroom. The parent may then call the school and demand that action be taken immediately, before teachers or administrators are even aware of what is taking place. 

“Some of it has been unnecessary or inappropriate,” he said of parents’ increased assertiveness.

He also said a lot more counseling resources have been allocated to deal with this rising level of anxiety. He is hopeful this trend is beginning to moderate. “Maybe we’re in a place now where we can strike a better balance.”

Gutekanst said he looks forward to dealing with many challenging issues over the next three years, including revising the Portrait of a Needham Graduate, finishing the Emory Grover Building renovations and negotiating a new contract for teachers. He also intends to continue addressing the performance gaps for special education students, low-income students and students of color. 

He said he also looks forward to getting the green light to rebuild Pollard Middle School as a school for grades six to eight. “That will be an important lift for the community,” he said.

Gutekanst’s work week is long, and he is often on call to deal with emergencies with the police chief, parents and School Committee members. And on potential snow days, he arrives in town hours before the scheduled start of classes to assess conditions by driving the streets himself.

He attributes his durable energy for this demanding job to many factors, such as his early morning workout at the high school. “It keeps me relevant,” he said. “During workouts, I have a lot of conversations with people in my head, which helps shape the rest of the day.”

When he does take a vacation, Gutekanst said he enjoys tent camping, hiking and running.

Each week during the school year, Gutekanst visits two to three classrooms. He said that keeps him grounded. “The interactions I have with kids — whether in the classroom, the cafeteria or on the ballfields — those are the sparks that keep the fire burning.”

“Many School Committee members noted throughout their evaluation comments that our success as a district is inextricably linked to Dan’s extraordinary ability,” School Committee member Andrea Longo Carter said when presenting Gutekanst’s evaluation. 

After almost two decades on the job, it’s hard to picture a school system with anyone else at the helm. Gutekanst wouldn’t make any predictions about what will happen in three years at the end of his new contract. “We’ll have to have a conversation about how to move forward at that point,” he said. 

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