New Beacon School Chief on His Way

A Q&A with the 10th superintendent in as many years

By Jeff Simms

Matthew Landahl, hired in January as superintendent of the Beacon City School District, will assume the job on July 1. He succeeds Ann Marie Quartironi, who has been acting as interim superintendent since the contentious resignation of Barbara Walkley in January 2016. Quartironi will return to her job as the district’s finance chief.

Matthew Landahl (photo by J. Simms)

Most recently a deputy superintendent for the Ithaca City School District, Landahl will become the district’s 10th superintendent, including interims, in as many years. He will earn $190,000 annually.

Landahl, whose mother was an elementary school teacher in Chicago, earned a history degree from Grinnell College before teaching fourth and fifth grade in Baltimore as part of Teach for America.

He next moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he was an elementary school principal while pursuing advanced degrees in education administration at the University of Virginia. Landahl and his family moved to Ithaca in 2013 when he was hired as the district’s chief elementary schools officer. In 2014 he became its chief academic officer.

Following Walkley’s resignation, the Beacon school board hired a search firm,  which created focus groups to compile a “leadership profile” of what the district and community were looking for. Landahl beat out nearly 50 other applicants. He spoke with The Current a few days before he was set to move to Beacon. His comments have been edited for brevity.

What have you been up to since January?
I have been to Beacon several times for school visits and to spend time with principals and staff members. I’ve also been there to participate in some of the administrative hires, and to buy a house. I feel like my car could do the drive on its own.

What’s your impression of the district now that you’ve spent time here?
It hasn’t changed all that much, and I mean that in a good way. I see people with a lot of heart and passion for children. I see people who care about the district and the jobs they do. After I was hired, I spent a day and a half in the schools and classrooms, and I saw a lot of great things happening.

Your boss in Ithaca, Luvelle Brown, in 2017 was named New York Superintendent of the Year. What have you learned working with him?
One of the big things I learned is to focus on getting to know the kids and the staff members, whether they’re teachers or support staff. And just as important, getting to know community members. Over the summer and into the fall I’m going to have community conversations to hear what people love about the district and what they want to see improved. That’s objective No. 1 — to get to know people and hear their stories.

What can an outside hire offer a district like Beacon, which has seen its share of challenges over the last few years?
A lot can be said for a fresh perspective. I’ve worked in multiple states and a lot of my career has been going into places that were struggling. You weren’t involved with the history and you bring fresh ideas. But you need time to figure everything out. I’d love to be a part of changing the recent history in Beacon, and I’d love to be in the district for a long time.

When you come into a district with some history, do you want to know every single thing that’s happened, or is it more helpful not to know?
Whether you want to know, you end up finding out most of it. People like to share their stories and I don’t discourage them from sharing with me. It’s helpful to know some, but I’m not coming in to do a deep investigation on the past. From the interactions I’ve had, it seems like most people, if not all, are excited to move forward.

What is your impression of the work being done inside classrooms?
I base a lot of my opinions on working side-by-side with people, so I prefer to withhold judgment about where we need to go until I can see that. So far, I see people who care a lot about kids — and that’s not just teachers, but all the people who work in the district. But to base a plan on test scores or graduation rates isn’t appropriate. You need to see a lot more than what I’ve seen so far to chart a course.

Other than education, what are you passionate about?
My family. I have a 5-year-old son. We love hiking and exploring. I grew up outside of Chicago and am still passionate about Chicago sports.

What album or movie would you bring to a deserted island that has a CD/DVD player?
I’ll cheat a little and name both. First, U2’s The Joshua Tree, because that was the first concert I went to as a teenager, and Abbey Road by The Beatles because I was a classic rock DJ in college. For a movie, it would be a triple-pack: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

What are your priorities for the Beacon district?
This could be said for any district in the country, but improving communication within the district and between stakeholders and the district. Also, increasing the use of technology and improving the teaching and learning experience. If you’re not constantly working toward improving, you’re going in the opposite direction.

As a student, I remember having butterflies the night before a new school year began. Do superintendents get butterflies?
This school year will be my 25th as an educator, and I’ve had butterflies before the start of every one. It’s nervous excitement, and I can’t wait to feel that in Beacon.