Brian Hartwell has been the district superintendent for Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES for nearly six months. He had most recently been the superintendent of the Pulaski Academy & Central School District and had previously been the principal of Oswego High School. The top BOCES seat had seen a lot of change in recent years, as the previous leader Denise Dzikowski abruptly left in March 2017 after less than a year in the position. Later that month, Chris Todd, the district superintendent for the BOCES in Oswego County, became the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES head, a position he held through May of last year.
Speaking with The Citizen recently at his office at the BOCES building, Hartwell said he had enjoyed working on different programs and initiatives with the Oswego County BOCES so much that he wanted to do more of that kind of work.
The Citizen: What were some of your goals for BOCES, some of the things you wanted to implement when you got here?
Hartwell: That's a tough question, because it can't really be what I want to implement, it's what nine superintendents and I work together to create. So when people talk about, "What's your vision?" I always say it's really to collaborate both regionally and at the state levels to provide world-class learning opportunities and experiences and service for all children in the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES service area.
The Citizen: I imagine every component district has different needs. What were some of the things that you had gotten the impression that the component districts wanted from Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES? What were some of your big takeaways?
Hartwell: One of the things that we consistently talk about is how to increase meaningful programming for students. Not only in career and technical education, but dual-enrollment programming, online programming, online learning type of opportunities. We're always looking to not have programs just for having programs' sake but are really meaningful for our students and then also provide the services of professional development for the faculty and staff in our region that they want. To make sure that they're getting what they need, whether that's administratively, from a faculty standpoint, a teaching assistant, those types of things. Those are probably the biggest takeaways. And it's always fun when you work together to accomplish those things. Every district's needs might be a little bit different, but we all serve students and we all want what's best for our students so to be able to work collectively to provide those services is really what we need to be doing.
The Citizen: When you talk about meaningful programming, and not just having programming for programming's sake, is there anything that comes to mind?
HARTWELL: Not at this point. My start date was the end of May, so in order to create a program, for instance, we're having conversations now about things we could create for next September. We're still very shallow in those waters, but I think one of those things we have discovered at this point, the ten of us — myself and the nine school superintendents — is that we like each other, we like working with each other, we're excited about the work and that is so critical because once you have that foundation built where you trust each other, you can really do anything. It's good news for our kids.
The Citizen: So for the last few months you've been getting to know each other and now you're building up to what all of you want to do next year?
HARTWELL: Yeah, sometimes you just have to talk and listen and so my goal coming in was to learn about the history and learn about the culture of not only the BOCES but the region. What are the wants, the needs and what are the individual visions of nine leaders and how can we kind of meld those together into a regional vision moving forward?
The Citizen: You were the superintendent of the Pulaski Academy & Central School District, so you have experience with school areas, but I imagine being a BOCES superintendent working with nine component districts is a different animal. How do you balance that?
Hartwell: One of the thing that I have to be cognizant of and to really make an effort is to make sure I stay in consistent communication with each district, with each school superintendent. There's always an open door policy. If you call me at 2 a.m. or 2 p.m., I'm going to pick it up. If you're calling me at 2 a.m., there's a really good reason, right? So you have to be accessible, you have to be visible. That part really isn't anything new, but we like each other and we like working together. When someone needs something or someone wants to bounce an idea off (of you), you have to be responsive to that.
The Citizen: What are the programs you've wanted to do while you've been here that you've been working on?
Hartwell: We're having more conversations about how to increase and have more program offerings for our adult community. In our world, it's called adult education, but how to have more opportunities for folks out there in our service area that want to come back to school for welding and construction trades and automotive and electrical, those types of things. We have a responsibility in our region to offer those types of things so we're trying to figure out a way to be better at that and to meet the needs of our community.
We're always looking at ways to improve our communication, our image, our PR. When I say "image," I really mean to have our programs to be attractive to students and adults alike. So if you've walking down the hallway of XYZ high school and say "You know what, I really think I really want to go the culinary program at BOCES," have that conversation be "You know what? You really should check that out, that's an awesome place to be." I hope that those things are being said, by and large. I feel like that, that it's an awesome place to be. And if it's not for anybody, I want to work to change that. I want the culture to be so positive, that this is a place where students want to come and where adults want to work.
The Citizen: Has there been any particular moments while you've been here that's really stuck out to you, anything that made you think "This is my why I'm here, this is why I want to be here."
Hartwell: There have been a couple. The school chiefs, we call them CSO meetings, chief school officer. So every superintendent is a chief school officer. So we have school officer meetings once a month, and it might have been our second or third meeting, where you get that feeling, "OK, this is clicking. This is really working well. I like the people around the table." You just get the feeling we're going to do some really positive things together. That was one of those moments. I remember going home that night and saying "This is the right place, I'm doing the things I'm meant to do with the people I'm meant to do them with and it just feels right."
Another moment was on Oct. 4. We had our board (of education) retreat. Board meetings are once a month and it's very formal, Robert's Rules. But at a retreat, there are no Robert's Rules and you're really getting to know each other. And you've got to remember, these are are the folks that hired me. And that was another moment where you're like, you know, I really, really like these people. They're smart and in it for the right reasons and we understand out respective rules and we support each other.
Another moment for me was opening day. It was the Tuesday after Labor Day. We have 372 employees and the feedback that I received after opening day was just so welcoming, and humbling. We have nine superintendents, we also have board members, but now I have 372 folks that don't have to say "You know what? That went really well." I'm very passionate about what I do and I feed off of that. To know that's it's going in the right direction makes me so excited and happy for the possibilities down the road.
The fourth one, and the most important — one of the things I did upon my arrival (once) I started May 21 was I completed 100 interviews in 100 days. Many of those interviews were with students. I had met with a group of students up here in the conference next door, and I can't remember the date exactly but it was late May or early June, it was right before school ended. And to listen to them, we walked (about) a lot of different things, but there were four questions that every person or group had.
To listen to our students from the nine school districts talk about what they love about their BOCES, about our BOCES, was just so fulfilling for me, because it let me know that despite some of the turnover in this office over the last couple of years, that we were still doing great things for kids because what they were saying, what they loved about this place was so meaningful. That they were getting the programming that they needed, that the teachers were seconds-to-none in their eyes, that they felt at home here. That's real positive and powerful stuff. Those are the four things, I would say, but the student one, by far — that's why we're all here.