UPDATE: Edwardsburg school board names superintendent

Published 9:30 pm Wednesday, April 19, 2023

EDWARDSBURG — Edwardsburg Public Schools has found its new superintendent.

The EPS Board of Education announced it has offered the position to Dr. Courtney Szucs, Executive Director of Special Services at Fenton Area Public Schools in Fenton, contingent upon successful contract negotiations and a site visit. 

Dr. Szucs will begin on July 1 and will replace Jim Knoll, who announced his retirement in February. She will become the first woman to helm Edwardsburg Public Schools. 

Dr. Sarah J. Hickle, Assistant Superintendent at School City of Mishawaka; and Mark Brenton, Superintendent of Bellaire Public Schools in Bellaire, Michigan, were the other final candidates.

“This is important to all of us, so it has been very thoughtful,” said EPS Board President Chelsea Wilson. “We’ve been very thorough and it’s been a lot of reading and listening, but I’m very optimistic. I think Dr. Szucs is a wonderful candidate.”

Szucs has a Doctorate of Education in K-12 Educational Leadership from Michigan State University. She has served as Fenton’s Executive Director of Special Services since 2018 and as its Special Services Director from 2010-18. During the 2010-11 school year, she also directed the district’s Federally Funded Programs. Prior to that, she was the Supervisor of Special Education for Lake Orion Schools in Lake Orion, Michigan from 2008-2010 and was the interim supervisor during the 2007-08 school year.

“I do feel that all of the roles and responsibilities that I’ve had as an executive director have prepared me to be a superintendent,” she said. “My work with the budget throughout the district, my work with curriculum, throughout the district, my work with staff, students, parents and all of those pieces I feel have prepared me for that role. I have dealt with really tough situations and how to make tough calls. I’ve gone through hearings, I work with legal counsel regularly, I’m part of the executive teaming cabinet right now, so I do know the day-to-day tasks and responsibilities of a superintendent, I just haven’t done them yet.”

Szucs’ interview Tuesday lasted just over one hour. After asking standard questions at the first-round interview last week, the board was able to query Szucs on more in-depth topics, such as the potential influence of politics on education as well as her experience with helping her district pass a bond. She was also asked what her three biggest priorities would be upon assuming the role of superintendent:

  • Getting to know the school board to better understand the district’s needs
  • Knowing what the district’s strengths and weaknesses are
  • The next steps regarding the bond

“It’s about getting to know everybody through the lens of what they feel is working in Edwardsburg,” she said. “What are some strengths and weaknesses? What are some opportunities that we can look at taking, and also looking in terms of what direction with having the bond not pass a couple of times. What’s next there? I know there’s a plan in place for looking at things like roof maintenance, but those were really costly items. So figuring out what is the plan and what needs to still be addressed?” 

For Wilson, what stood out to her the most about Szucs was her support of teachers.

“She’s very supportive,” she said. “She seems like a real team builder and that’s where we need. So I’m looking forward to working with her.”

How we got here

After two days of interviews last week, Szucs, Hinkle and Brenton were invited to final interviews Tuesday before the board’s deliberation meeting Wednesday evening. Prior to both meetings, members of the public voiced their concerns regarding the candidates and asked the board to take its time and extend the search process.

“I love our district,” said Jonathan Anderstrom. “I know it very well. And I do not think any of these three candidates are the best fit for Edwardsburg … If the process requires a restart from the beginning, our community will understand and appreciate this decision. It is wise to avoid making important decisions when you are tired or lacking all of the necessary information. When you are well rested and in a clear state of mind, this will increase the likelihood of making a well, informed and well thought-out decision that will lead to positive outcomes for our students, staff and community.”

After hearing the public comments, Trustee Tammy Niemar presented a motion that the board consider additional time and consideration regarding the superintendent, a motion seconded by Trustee Kevin Harris.

“I think it is our duty and our responsibility to represent our community and make sure that we are making the right decision,” Niemer said. “This average term for a superintendent is around three to five years, so the decision we make today is with us for quite some time. I tried to be very careful and understanding of the thoughts in the room and trying to take everything into consideration, all good, bad, and otherwise, and I feel that the community is overwhelmingly asking for more time.

“I feel as a board member, I have been overwhelmed with all of this and being a mom and doing a job that I feel like we owe it to our community to make sure that we take the appropriate time that’s needed.”

Niemar’s motion failed 5-2, with other members expressing confidence that the board had done its due diligence over the past three months.

“I wish that we could have a guarantee with anybody,” said Trustee Natalie Frentz. “I think we could keep this open for six months and still not know everything about a person. Nobody comes with a guarantee. I think we have to do our best to choose the best person, but I think that we’re never going to have a guarantee that we know every last thing about the person.”

The discussion then shifted to who the board should offer the position to, and Szucs was the answer with a 6-1 vote, with Harris as the lone vote.

“I think Courtney showed everything we could possibly want,” Overmeyer said. “She’s been at a very high level in her district … I feel very good about her experience, what she brings to the team after hearing her discussion about work-life balance and collaboration.”

A unique perspective

Few people in Edwardsburg understand the superintendent search process better than Birdella Holdread, who has been a part of the district in one way or another for more than 60 years. A 1965 graduate of EPS, Holdread served on the school board 39 years before retiring in 2022 and helped hire four superintendents during that span. 

“It’s a tough decision and the biggest concern is always ‘have I voted for the right person,’” she said. “I thought they did a great job, and I think the site visit will help, especially when you’re in doubt.”

As a spectator in the audience, Holdread appreciated the transparency the board presented to the public.

“I think they did a good job,” she said. “I think the people that they interviewed and good qualities, and I thought each one answered their questions nicely. I thought they asked excellent questions of the candidates, and I thought that the candidates in turn gave great responses.”

“Even though she may not be the superintendent, I thought she had a little experience in everything that’s going on — a little bit of finance, a little bit of contract negotiation. That would give her a good base to move on to the next position, and all superintendents come in still have to train up because they don’t all know of the finances, which are hard things to learn. Each one will learn through experience.”

In Holdread’s experience, new superintendents should not be afraid to ask for help.

“There’s help all the way around, and I think most of the superintendents have asked for help,” she said. “When you can’t admit that you need help, then you have a problem, right? The problem comes in when you think you know what to do and you really have no clue.”