Following the Board of Education’s decision not to renew superintendent Richard Perry’s contract, Perry reflects on his time within the Haddonfield school district and looks forward to the next phase of his life.
For Richard Perry, being superintendent of the Haddonfield school district has never been about the numbers, it’s always been about the people.
“It’s like a relationship, but there comes a time when the relationship runs its course,” Perry said.
Perry has served as superintendent for the last seven years. His contract, which the Board of Education unanimously voted to not renew at its July 13 meeting, comes to an end on June 30, 2018, and for Perry, his eighth and final year potentially marks the most important to date.
“I want to have every single day with the students, teachers, with the administrators, with the board members, with the community that I feel a part of,” Perry said.
For Perry, working in the Haddonfield school district has been “a dream come true.” A native of Haddon Heights, Perry never aspired to be a superintendent, and he would have been satisfied to just become a high school principal. When the opportunity to serve as Haddonfield superintendent came into his life, he knew he couldn’t say “no” to the prospect of moving back to the area where he had grown up.
Perry came in on the heels of two superintendents, Joe O’Brien and Alan Fegley, who had left in quick succession, having spent fewer than two years with the district. He said he faced an unprecedented budget challenge with the state’s 2 percent cap, which forced him to get creative as he worked hard to ensure no programs were cut each budgetary season.
With Perry at the helm, Haddonfield “strengthened and reinstituted” the district’s out-of-district tuition program, which brings in approximately $350,000 annually. From 2010 to 2011, the district brought in consultants, did marketing, put in place a strategic plan and led recruiting efforts. Perry said they also held open houses, did tours, put together a tuition student website, ran articles, bought advertisements and created tuition student videos to bolster the program.
Perry also created an international tuition program for Chinese students through which the district receives $250,000. The program began under Perry’s watch and was not done in the year’s prior to his superintendency.
He said other districts are making cuts, but Haddonfield is always expanding. Perry thinks this emphasis on expansion and upward growth may have contributed, in part, to the board’s decision.
“They didn’t want us to become stagnant or continue a certain path,” Perry said. “They want to look for newness, a new direction to even take us higher, and I think the superintendent cap going up gave them an opportunity to look for a leader that might take them in that type of direction.”
Board member and past board president Glenn Moramarco said the entirety of the board wishes Perry well and thinks he has a very bright future in education wherever it leads him. He said the thinking was a change could push the district even further.
“No matter how good a job someone has done, there are times when new leadership can take the group to an even higher level of accomplishment or achievement,” Moramarco said.
Perry said at the end of May, the board informed him of its decision not to renew his contract. He said the news was a bit sudden, but he appreciated the board being open and honest with him.
In his seven years, Perry has worked with five boards of education. He said oftentimes, board members do not come from an education background, so over the years, he’s taken it upon himself to educate board members of the responsibilities of the superintendent and how board decisions affect a variety of people at many levels.
He said when he first came to the district, the board was “a very veteran-driven board with a strong sense of identity and purpose.” Perry said by comparison, the current board is looking for a “sense of purpose and identity.”
“This board is in its infancy state,” Perry said. “I think it’s trying to find its way and its direction, and I think that’s maybe one of the reasons they’re looking for a leader. They want to start new with a new leader to see what that direction is.”
Both Board President Adam Sangillo and Moramarco, on the other hand, said the board consists primarily of seasoned members with only one member, Matthew Ritter, in his first year.
Even so, Moramarco said there’s often something to be said for a fresh perspective.
“Sometimes new people bring new ideas and strengths,” Moramarco said.
Despite the decision, Perry said there are no hard feelings, and he anticipates remaining friends with many of the board members. The sentiment was echoed by Sangillo.
“I’m glad to know him, and I’m sure he’s going to be a friend to me and the community for a long time,” Sangillo said.
Throughout his time in Haddonfield, Perry has cultivated good will throughout the community.
Charles Klaus, principal of Haddonfield Memorial High School, said Perry has not only been a colleague but a friend. He said he brought a humanistic perspective to the role of superintendent.
“He doesn’t look at test scores; he looks at people,” Klaus said. “His priority is people. In a world driven by numbers all the time, it’s refreshing.”
Borough Commissioner Jeffrey Kasko said in his four years as mayor, the borough often partnered with the school district on a variety of projects. He said he and Perry always had an open line of communication and a good relationship.
Kasko said he was “somewhat surprised and somewhat disappointed” when he learned about the board’s decision.
“When you work with somebody who you like and who you have a good working relationship with, it’s a little bit of a jolt because now in the future you don’t know who will be next,” Kasko said. “All three of the commissioners are hopeful [the board] can find someone we can work well with and who has the best interests of the kids.”
Tom Baird, former president of the Haddonfield Alumni Society, said he was upset to learn about the board’s decision. He said Perry has always made a concerted effort to keep alumni abreast of the goings on at the schools and has taken an active interest in the Alumni Society.
“I was very, very upset,” Baird said. “I just think they’re really missing the boat on having a great guy and having his experience and dynamic ideas concerning the school system.”
Steven Weinstein, senior vice president for governmental relations and general counsel at Rowan University, served as board president when Perry was hired. He said it was evident from the beginning that Perry brought a strong interest in working directly with students.
He said he’s been off the board for four years now, but he understands it’s up to each board to establish its priorities.
“I know there have been some changes with the salary cap that has been imposed by the state,” Weinstein said. “The sense might be that it’s an appropriate time to see what’s out there for a transition.”
Daniel Kubikian said he found Perry to be approachable when he served as president of the Elizabeth Haddon Elementary School Parent Teacher Association from 2014 to 2015. He said he worked with Perry on updating the school’s playground, but more often than not, as PTA president, he found himself working with the board.
“I’ve found the board to be level-headed and long-range thinking,” Kubikian said.
Kubikian said Perry did a good job while he was superintendent, but he can see how it may be someone else’s turn to step into the role. He said Perry’s time coming to an end in no way diminishes his accomplishments.
“He should feel good about himself,” Kubikian said. “The board is looking to go in a different direction, [but] he can take advantage of that.”
Perry said the board may have given him a much-needed push to take his life in a new direction as he pursues his long-deferred dream of screenwriting. He said he’s recently dusted off his old script and began submitting it to screenwriting festivals where the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Before he goes, however, Perry said he’s going to try to solidify the work he’s done and generally make sure the day-to-day operations run smoothly for students. He said he wants to support the transition for whoever the next superintendent may be and will be happy to pass down as much knowledge to the new person as possible.
“Right now, I have to be a part of the solution and leading us out of this controversy and making sure for the benefit of our students that they have the most enriching experience that they can,” Perry said.