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New super: 'My first priority is to listen'

Mark Miller wants to get to know Juneau

Posted: June 12, 2014 - 12:25am
Mark Miller of Hayward, California, speaks during his interview for school district superintendent at Thunder Mountain High School on June 7.  Marlena Sloss | Juneau Empire
Marlena Sloss | Juneau Empire
Mark Miller of Hayward, California, speaks during his interview for school district superintendent at Thunder Mountain High School on June 7.

Mark Miller knows he’ll be seen as the new guy in Juneau, but that won’t stop him from digging into his job as superintendent of the Juneau School District. 

In the few days he was in town for his “whirlwind” interviews, Miller said he made a connection with both the place and the people. During his first round of public interviews with the Juneau School Board Saturday, he mentioned feeling an instant affinity for Alaska’s capital city.

“I wish I had words to explain it, and I don’t,” he said after the interviews. “It’s just a feeling that comes from the heart and the stomach and the body ... just a peaceful, majestic feeling that this is a place people want to be.”

He also caught on to one of Juneau’s major quirks early on: It’s impossible to be anonymous in this town. He had his first experience with that during a lunch break at McDonald’s.

“I got about two bites of my quarter-pounder and someone said, ‘You’re Mark, right?’” he recalled. It turns out it was a couple of the district’s custodial staff members. “Coming from the Bay area where nobody knows you, it’s a little freaky. But I like that, I think that adds value to life.”

Miller, who served as assistant superintendent of human resources for California’s Hayward Unified School District the past two years, is stepping into his first role as superintendent. With 10 years of teaching and 10 years of administrative experience under his belt, he feels ready to take on the top job for an entire district.

His first task when he comes on board in July? Listening, he said.

“I need to understand from all the different parties and all the stakeholders what’s important to them so I can truly understand what the next steps need to be,” Miller said. “I’m going to need to spend some time just really understanding what Juneau’s about.”

He said he knows the differences between his current district and Juneau’s go further than running into people you know at McDonald’s.

“Juneau works very differently than Hayward does,” he said. “I recognize that and respect it, but it’s going to take me a little time to understand it.”

He’ll do that by meeting with parents and other stakeholders one on one and in small groups.

“I’m going to go out and meet them — lots of talking, lots of conversations — and inviting people to come in and talk to me,” Miller said. “There’s no magic to it. It just takes time, that’s all.”

He said a misconception he wants to fix is that the board and administration aren’t listening to the public.

“There’s a difference between listening, which the board and the superintendent need to do, but that’s different than doing something that someone at the podium thinks you should do,” he said. “It’s possible to listen and not do what someone at the podium thinks we should do. One thing we need to work on is knowing that sometimes, we’re going to disagree ... Almost every decision that school boards end up making, a portion of the population is unhappy with it.”

Miller was one of three finalists interviewed by the board for the superintendent position, which opened up when Glenn Gelbrich announced in March he’d be resigning at the end of the school year. The other two candidates were Angela Lunda, of Hoonah, and Rick Williams, of Richardson, Texas.

At every step along the way during the three days of interviews last weekend and the beginning of this week, Ray and Associates, the firm tasked with leading the superintendent search, collected comments from the public on the three finalists.

The Empire received several messages from readers saying they and others emailed support for Lunda to the school board and were disappointed she was not selected, since she grew up in Juneau and most of her career was spent teaching in Juneau schools.

JSD Board of Education President Sally Saddler said she didn’t know how many emails the board received in support of each individual candidate. However, the board did read every email and every comment sheet turned in during the process, she said.

“We had three candidates, each of whom had some amazing qualities, and what we were looking for is ... that package of qualities to keep us going forward to improve student achievement,” she said. “It’s every board’s dilemma to have a choice, and it’s a lovely dilemma to have.”

She said Miller’s experience with improving student achievement — and the data he was able to show for it — was what set him apart. It also seemed he would be able to fit in well with the community, she said.

“It seemed like Mark had that package that had a little of something for everyone,” Saddler said. “He really kind of nailed it for me, personally.”

The board unanimously agreed to extend a contract to Miller, she said. The advertised salary was $162,000.

“There’s a lot of excitement (among board members),” Saddler said. “It’s my hope that the community is as open and welcoming to him as the board is.”

Miller’s three children are all grown and have their own careers and lives, so they won’t be moving to Juneau with him, he said. His daughter curates art shows and does visual marketing for companies like Nordstrom. His oldest son has a master’s degree in computer engineering and designs computer chips. His youngest son counsels patients with drug and alcohol addictions and is working on his master’s degree in counseling. 

“They all texted me, because that’s what they do, ‘Congratulations, we can’t wait to come visit,’” Miller said. “I’m clearly going to have to find a place (in Juneau) that has a couple of bedrooms and a couple of bathrooms.”

As for Miller, he’s a self-professed “Renaissance man” who hasn’t found an outdoor activity he doesn’t like. He even likes running in the rain, he said. All told, he’s excited to begin work in July.

“This has been whirlwind for me; a week ago I wasn’t even on an airplane going to Juneau,” Miller said. “Now I’m thrilled to be named superintendent and wrapping my head around this whole thing.”

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com.

Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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dimitra Lavrakas lavrakas
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dimitra Lavrakas lavrakas 06/13/14 - 04:23 am
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Really?

You didn't hire the Alaskan. Is it because she's a woman? School boards, they're so nuts.

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