Q & A With Saline's New Superintendent
Stephen Laatsch is now settling into his role as Saline’s new, full time superintendent. He has spent the lions share of his career working in various roles within the Saline Area Schools Districts, which have shaped his views on how he will lead the district through the future. The following interview with Saline’s new superintendent was conducted by phone and has been edited for length and clarity.
The Sun Times News: How does it feel to be on the top job officially?
Steve Laatsch: It feels great. I’ve obviously been in the district for a long time and served in a variety of roles. I am really excited to be in the long term superintendent role. I feel good about the direction and vision of the district. I’m excited to just get down to work and work with our incredible community, our incredible staff and our wonderful student body.
The Sun Times News: It must have felt vindicating to be hired by the Board of Education by an unanimous vote. What is your relationship with the staff? Is everyone on the same page?
I think so. I say that because as I was going through the superintendence’s application process, and working on potentially getting the long term job, I did get a lot of feedback from my staff and I know that the Board of Education did as well, that supported me in my candidacy.
The Sun Times News: With the school year almost over, how well is the current Covid-19 strategy working?
We feel like we are in pretty good shape in regard to our Covid strategy. We did go into the patch where after spring break we were having students back, quarantining a fair number of students and some staff. However, now the quarantining is way, way down. The number of positive cases in the school district – and the community, for that matter – is way down. The next challenge is now: how do we move forward with mitigation strategies as we move [to the] fall? And what does that look like, since we’ve announced we’re going back to five days a week instruction?
The Sun Times News: What are your plans for next year?
When we say back to normal, I mean that we’re planning on five days a week of in person instruction instead of the four days a week that we’re doing. We are still surveying our virtual families and students, to find out what they think went well, what are areas of improvement and are they coming back to the district in person?
We certainly will have the ability to offer some virtual offerings, more at the secondary [level.] And we’ve been doing that all the time anyway.
In general, we are going to return to an in person model. What that means in terms of mask wearing and distancing, we’re still waiting to see what the research is from the CDC and the Washtenaw County Health Department when it comes to things like quarantining. When I say research, I mean that we did quarantining this year for students and staff who had contacts [with Covid victims]. But is that going to be necessary next year? We need to find that out.
When we quarantined students and staff, we did not find that those students or staff actually getting Covid. So, the question is: will quarantining as we know it still exist next year? That is something that we need to work through with the Washtenaw County Health Department.
The Sun Times News: There have been discussions about families choosing to leave to alternative teaching models. How are you planning to keep families in the district?
We have been reaching out to the families that are not with us right now, [with] surveys. We’re also trying to bring back families involved in what we are doing in the district, to make sure that they know that they know that we are bringing back the in person model. We feel like with our announcement of five days a week personal instruction next year that we will be regaining many of those students, and that we will continue to work towards that.
The Sun Times News: How will you move forward with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee?
The DEI Advisory Committee was just officially formed through our policy. They’re just now completing the application process. I was talking to Dr. Schukow, the Assistant Principal at the Middle School, [whose] the lead administrator. They have now met and are almost finished with their selection process. We are actually planning on making that announcement at the May 25 Board of Education meeting.
It’s going along well. That group will help steer the vision of the district. We’re also continuing with our equity engagement sessions over Zoom, and we’ve been talking about equity in the district. There’s one more of those on May 26, 6:300 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
I would say there will be one more this year. What we’re finding is that the community does need and want to talk about this, they like talking about it. Even if we don’t agree on every issue, it’s important to be discussing it. I anticipate more of these next year, this is just the last one of this school year.
The Sun Times News: What is your philosophy for fiscal stewardship?
We’re making sure that we are being fiscally responsible. In the district we have always kept a reasonably low fund balance. We’d like to grow that. We know that there are districts around us who have that rainy day fund in case there are emergencies. With that said, we want to make sure that we are supporting our staff and teachers; and that we put a large amount of our dollars towards the instructional program. We want to continue to do that.
Then there’s Covid relief fund. We’re trying to get a handle on how much we will actually have to apply to our general budget. Though that certainly is providing some temporary support, that won’t change the structure – our contracts.
The Sun Times News: Are you in favor of increasing teachers’ salaries?
We always want to try and find a way to pay all of our employees more. We feel like we’ve done a good job as it relates to our teachers. Our contract for our teachers is, we feel, very good, in comparison with other teachers around Washtenaw County.
The reality [is] that we receive our funding from the per pupil expenditure. We have a fixed amount that comes in each year, and it is very difficult to raise our own revenue to pay staff more, even if we wanted to. We’re often at the mercy of how the state is funding various school districts. With ours, we’re at the lower level of the per pupil expenditure, meaning that we have a certain amount coming in and that’s the amount of money that we want to use for salary.
The Sun Times News: You said back when you were a candidate that you wanted to largely continue the Compass model. Are there any tweaks that you want to do?
Students have done a great job with the Compass model this year. Our students and staff have really used the Compass skills collaboratively. The digital literacy that’s taken place this year – to figure out how to use Zoom and the apps students have been exposed to this year – they’ve really come a long way in the use of the Compass. I would argue that we’ve used the Compass more this year than any time before, so we want to stay the course in integrating those skills in our teaching program next year; because we know that more than ever before, the employers that our kids are going to have are going to demand those skills by the time they graduate.
The Sun Times News: Some students will have thrived learning on a digital model, and some will not have. Is the future of education going to be individualized with some students have the ability to learn all in person, and some online?
We continue to look at how we can expand our offerings with technology and will continue to do so moving forward.
The Sun Times News: What is your philosophy to school security? Will you be taking steps to do things like banning weapons or arming the teachers?
We have had no conversations about arming teachers with guns in the schools. We did put in greater security for buzzing people into buildings, we still have our community resource officer at the high school. [But] we have had zero conversations or entertained thoughts about arming teachers with guns in the building.