Stephen Nixon, assistant principal of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School since 2004, will become principal in July, beating more than a dozen off-Island candidates for the position now held by Margaret (Peg) Regan, who resigns at the end of this academic year.
The announcement came this week from schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss, who made the final decision using the initial decisions of a screening committee and the recommendations of students, teachers and community members and a sub-group of the high school committee.
“I went for the inside man,” Mr. Weiss said by telephone Wednesday, citing Mr. Nixon’s direct experience in the running of the high school and his working knowledge of the Massachusetts school system as factors in the choice.
“He’ll hit the ground running at a critical time for the school,” he said. Mr. Nixon, 52, will assume his new job faced with tight budgets and declining enrollment.
For Mr. Weiss, Mr. Nixon’s perceived capability in the political end of the principal’s position, which involves dealing with leaders from the six towns and negotiating budgets, is key.
“Ten years ago this wouldn’t have mattered as much, but now it is a priority,” he said.
As principal, Mr. Nixon will be responsible for managing curriculum, a 700-plus student body and a multi-million dollar annual operation that Island towns will fund through their budgets.
Mr. Nixon will step straight into his role as diplomat and negotiator when the new fiscal year begins in July.
“I don’t know that he has that much direct experience (in the area) but at least he knows the players,” said Mr. Weiss.
A five-member sub-committee from the high school committee attended the final interviews held Feb. 19 and 21 before individually offering Mr. Weiss their opinions on the candidates. John Bacheller, Susan Mercier, Susan Parker, Roxanne Ackerman and Leslie Baynes made up the committee.
Speaking to the Gazette this week, Mr. Baynes said he could “live with the choice.
“But they were all very impressive candidates,” Mr. Baynes said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to make the decision. They all stood out.”
Mr. Baynes also recognized the need for a principal with financial acumen.
“He has ideas that’s the strength of any organization, but he’s very realistic on the economics of education,” he said, adding: “Nixon’s a known quantity.”
The committee member added that the vigorous application process meant that the local man was put through the mill. “He had to earn it and I’m comfortable saying he did earn it,” Mr. Baynes said.
For Mr. Nixon, the process was long, tough and useful too.
“I got to see many groups and angles and questions from community, students and staff,” he said this week by telephone. “It’s good to know where people’s passions lie.”
Mr. Nixon, who has lived on the Vineyard with his wife Maryellen (Talon) Nixon for 10 years, was the only Island candidate in the four choices submitted to Mr. Weiss early this month.
A fourth candidate, Arthur Arpin, dropped out of the interview process citing family concerns. That left Mr. Nixon up against Stephen Collins, principal of Quaboag Regional High School in Warren, and Eileen Coppola, lecturer and associate director for research at Rice University in Houston, Tex.
A screening committee picked the final candidates after Mr. Weiss’s office had whittled down an initial list of 40 to 45 applications to a dozen. The committee interviewed five of the most promising, returning a list of four to Mr. Weiss’s office at the end of January. These were then asked back to the high school for a full day of interviews and introductions.
Mr. Weiss felt that the process, which he described as casting a “national net,” helped him make an informed decision for the crucial post.
Mr. Weiss was not swayed by a letter of endorsement for Mr. Nixon sent in early February to the Gazette which carried nearly 60 signatures from high school faculty members.
“The letter wasn’t the interesting portion of the decision-making,” the superintendent said. “It was thoughtful discussion with members of the community.”
Mr. Weiss organized input forms for gauging feedback on the candidates.
“We got back 50 to 60 forms outlining strengths and weaknesses and saying, ‘please think about the following.’ It was that and the input from the sub-committee,” he said. “It wasn’t people saying ‘I want Joe or Mary.’ That’s why the letter didn’t mean much.”
Island knowledge of candidates other than Mr. Nixon was limited by low attendance at the public interviews.
“There may have been some interaction, since the candidates were at the school for the day,” said Mr. Weiss. “But I was truly disappointed with the participation in the interviews by the public. Apart from people from my office and the sub-committee, there were about five others present.”
Nonetheless he is happy with the final decision.
“I picked the stronger candidate,” Mr. Weiss said.
Mr. Nixon was born and raised in New Jersey, where he lived until moving to the Island 10 years ago.
Getting his start in education after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in history at night school and taking a job teaching history at a New Jersey private school, Mr. Nixon continued night school and received a master’s degree shortly before moving to Massachusetts.
In 1998, he began teaching history at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.
Mr. Nixon took his first administrative position as temporary dean of students in 2002 and was named assistant principal by Ms. Regan in 2004.
“I saw I could make a difference in the classroom and I wanted to take that and put it in to administrative concepts that can spread through the school,” Mr. Nixon said.
Mr. Nixon, who met with Mr. Weiss yesterday to discuss salary and contract, has accepted the position.