Visionary. Effective communicator. Leader.

Those were characteristics Ottawa school district employees and community members said they want to see in the district’s new superintendent.

Kansas Association of School Boards representatives were in Ottawa Tuesday to ask three focus groups to describe the qualities they would like in a new top school administrator, as well as identify the district’s strengths and critical needs.

Doug Moeckel, deputy executive director of Topeka-based KASB, told school board members at a special meeting early Tuesday evening that he and Bill Majors, director of the East Central Kansas Cooperative in Education, Topeka, had met with the three groups during the day — district administrators, district staff and an ensemble of 13 teachers, site council members, parents and school board candidates — to discuss the district’s superintendent opening.

The school board voted March 11 to hire KASB to conduct the district’s search for former Superintendent Dean Katt’s successor. Katt stepped down with little explanation March 1, following the school board’s 10-minute executive session to discuss personnel matters. A settlement agreement between the board and the former superintendent prevents either side from discussing the reasons for his departure. Katt will remain on the school district payroll through Oct. 31 as a consultant.

Moeckel said the three groups said the new superintendent needs to be an effective communicator, personable, visible in the community and in the district’s school buildings, be a strong leader who makes decisions with the students’ best interests in mind and tells the board what they need to know — even if it might not necessarily be what they want to hear.

“Oh,” Moeckel said, “and one person said the new superintendent’s cuffs shouldn’t get wet when they walk on water.”

The three groups said the district’s strengths included its teachers, technology and the Communities in Schools program.

Critical needs, listed by the groups, included the need for a district vision, the need to improve communication, the need to help more at-risk students, the need to gain the community’s trust in the school district and the need to ensure equality among facilities and educational opportunities at all three elementary schools.

Lastly, Moeckel said, the groups were asked to use a word or a phrase to describe the single characteristic they would like to see in a new superintendent. The top responses included integrity, honesty, trustworthy, purposeful, commitment, effective communicator, intelligent, passionate about improving the district and an agent of positive change.

Next, Moeckel and Majors asked school board members to complete the same exercise.

The board’s list of district strengths included its quality teachers, administrators, commitment to cutting-edge technology, empowered staff, willingness to improve, strong focus on the students’ needs and the district’s ability to work well with city and county governments.

The board’s list of critical needs included the need for a district vision, accountability, alignment of curriculum, more focus on the special education department, helping more at-risk students, finding a leader who can help the district continue to improve despite potential state funding cuts, improve communication, address disparities in facilities, improve graduation rates and ensure the district is providing a safe learning environment at all its schools.

Board members also discussed characteristics that would be important in a superintendent.

“The person would have to have the onions to evaluate the staff honestly and get rid of poor-performing teachers or administrators to make sure the kids have the best possible education they can get,” Bill Allegre, board member, said.

The superintendent must have a vision for the district and be able to communicate that vision, David White, board member, said.

“They need to have a clear vision for the district and not just throw Jell-O at the wall and see what sticks,” White said.

Susan Ward, board president, said the new superintendent needs to be a visionary who is passionate about education and is an effective communicator on all levels — both internally and in the community.

The new superintendent must be driven to make the school district better, Brandon Jones, school board member, said.

“The person must have a passion to succeed and improve the school district,” Jones said.

The superintendent mush be a global thinker, detail-oriented, hold people accountable, decisive, open-minded, thoughtful and make decisions that are in the best interests of the students, Dennis George, board member, said.

The district’s top administrator also must be honest, follow through on initiatives, be creative and set goals that are attainable, Marge Stevens, board member, said.

Board member Brian Kane, who could not attend the special meeting because of work commitments, submitted his thoughts in advance, Moeckel and Ward told board members.

The KASB search team plans to screen the applicants for the Ottawa superintendent post and bring a list of finalists — who have been fully vetted — to the school board April 15, Moeckel said. The board would be tasked with reviewing the search team’s recommendations and deciding how many candidates on that short list it would bring in for interviews.

So all members could be present at the next discussion, the board voted to move its first meeting in April to 7 p.m. April 1, instead of April 8, to accommodate some board members who were going to be out of town on that date. The board will continue its discussion about the superintendent’s position at that April 1 meeting.

White told Moeckel and Majors that the one focus-group member’s suggestion that the new superintendent should be able to walk on water probably was setting the expectations a little too high.

“They can get their cuffs damp,” White said, “but not wet.”