Matt Haas, Albemarle County's incoming superintendent, sits in on a class at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School. Credit: Credit: Zack Wajsgras, The Daily Progress
Matt Haas likes to keep a Kennedy half-dollar in his pocket.

The coin reminds him of President John F. Kennedy’s insistence that the United States would “choose to go to the moon” — not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

“The moon landing was a challenge that we could get behind and take on, and it showed us what we were capable of,” Haas said.

When Haas, 50, becomes Albemarle County’s schools superintendent on July 1, he will lead a public education “moonshot” — a comprehensive redesign of the county’s high school system.
However, Haas said it is important to balance bold innovations with incremental improvements to make the school division function better and serve its students more equitably.
“In an organization of this size, substantive and impactful change takes a long time,” Haas said. “I would rather focus on a few areas and do them well.”

Haas, currently Albemarle’s deputy superintendent, will soon begin a countywide listening tour to experience the school division “through new eyes and ears.”

Haas shared his idea for the listening tour in his application for the position of superintendent last August.

“I wanted to assure the School Board that I wasn’t going to just walk down the hall and hang my name on the door of the superintendent’s office,” Haas said. “I wanted them to know that I would do a lot of work to listen to the community and stakeholders.”

Last week, Haas met with middle school students participating in M-Cubed, a program developed by Albemarle County Public Schools to improve the academic achievement of African-American male students and encourage them to enroll in higher-level math classes. He recently visited the Southwood Mobile Home Park to hear from Latino immigrant families there.

Haas has scheduled six listening sessions for teachers in July and August. He plans to host similar events for classified staff, parents, students and community organizations, and will receive additional comments through an online survey.

Patrick McLaughlin, chief of strategic planning for the county schools, said his department will help Haas produce a report on findings from the listening tour that will be shared with the School Board in October.

“It will be interesting to see how aligned Matt’s report is with the School Board’s current goals and strategic priorities,” McLaughlin said. “It could be that we find a consistent theme that we haven’t addressed much.”

Haas hopes to identify several key goals to inform his “marching orders” from the School Board during his first four-year contract cycle.
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Haas said earning the confidence of Albemarle residents will be necessary to secure financing for large school capital projects.
In May, the Albemarle County School Board requested a $96 million bond referendum for school projects that would appear on the November ballot, with more than $81 million designated for the construction of new high school facilities and modernization of existing high schools. A $96 million referendum was estimated to require a 7.7-cent increase to the county’s real estate tax rate over five years.

The School Board withdrew its request after the county’s Board of Supervisors refused to include more than $47 million for school projects in a referendum.

Instead of building a new comprehensive high school, the School Board has adopted a consultant’s recommendation to pursue the phased construction of satellite centers dedicated to project-based learning and work experiences for high school students.

A small pilot of this concept, called Albemarle Tech, will open in the Seminole Place industrial facility in August. The School Board’s five-year capital improvement program request includes $35.1 million for a 600-student high school center that would open for the 2021-22 school year.

On June 14, the School Board voted to reduce its funding request in next year’s capital budget from $53 million to $5.4 million. The funding for fiscal year 2019 will go toward design work and land acquisition to support the high school center, an addition at Scottsville Elementary School and renovations at Albemarle and Western Albemarle high schools.

Haas said the $200,000 in design costs for AHS and WAHS would support a separate community outreach process for those projects.

“Whatever kind of facilities changes we make, we need to ensure that they are going to be used by teachers to their fullest extent to support students,” Haas said. “Without professional development and a lot of communication and input from teachers and students … I worry that we will not see the outcomes that we will be looking for.”

Haas is hopeful that the Board of Supervisors will support a larger bond referendum in 2019.

“I believe the capacity is out there, in terms of revenue from tax increases,” Haas said. “I believe the public has a lot of support for the projects we want to do.”

“I understand where [the supervisors] are,” Haas added. “They have their own pressures, they have an entire county they are looking at and other departments and resources they need to address. We just need to be patient and keep communicating with them about what we are trying to accomplish.”
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Haas came to Albemarle from Smyth County when he became principal of AHS in 2004. He joined the division’s central office in 2009 as director of secondary education, and became deputy superintendent in 2015.

Haas said Pam Moran — Albemarle’s superintendent since 2006 — helped him to become a better leader long before the School Board appointed him as her successor last September.

“Pam has been coaching me every day. And like the great teacher that she is, she is slowly backing off,” Haas said. “If becoming superintendent is like ‘drinking out of a fire hose,’ Pam has been turning up that fire hose a little bit at a time.”

Haas has retained most of Moran’s leadership team and has filled several vacancies with internal hires. He chose Debora Collins, the division’s assistant superintendent for student learning, as his deputy superintendent.

Collins said she is not interested in succeeding Haas as superintendent or in taking the top job at another school division.

“[Becoming a superintendent] is not my career goal at all,” Collins said. “I am very happy doing what I can to help Matt as a colleague.”

“Matt does not want us to settle for how we have always done something,” Collins said. “He wants us to really push ourselves to consider our students and our teachers, and how our organization can shift to accomplish goals. He has a vision of what we could be.”

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.