'I tossed and turned': Dartmouth superintendent says retirement will be 'bittersweet'

DARTMOUTH — Dartmouth Public Schools officials hope their School Committee meeting on Dec. 12 will result in having an interim superintendent picked out who can finish out the current school year after Dr. Bonny Gifford retires on March 1, concluding eight years as Dartmouth's superintendent and 32 years in education.

"It is assumed a decision will be made at that meeting," Gifford told The Standard-Times on Thursday.

One option that has been proposed would be hiring Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations James Kiely to fill in for Gifford the remainder of the school year.

"I've been very impressed with him since I've come on the committee," said School Committee member Chris Oliver at a meeting on Nov. 7, where he was the one to introduce the idea of offering Kiely the interim position, citing an advantage to his institutional knowledge as a longtime employee of the district, and the potential disadvantage of having to bring an external hire "up to speed" only to serve a short period of time. "My thought would be to ask Mr. Kiely if this is something that he'd be interested in."

While all five School Committee members indicated that they would be open to considering Kiely, Chairman John Nunes said he is aware that it is a busy time of year for him in his permanent capacity, and remained open to also considering an outside interim hire.

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"It’s budget season, that type of deal, and everything else that is going on, so if he … was to respectfully decline, I would totally understand that. If he was to accept, I would totally understand and appreciate it," Nunes said. "Talking with Tom Scott at M.A.S.S. (Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents), there are a number of good candidates out there, some from the area that are kind of familiar with Dartmouth so … that’s a possibility."

As far as the search for a new permanent superintendent, Gifford told The Standard-Times that representatives from a firm that specializes in superintendent search consulting may be present at the upcoming Dec. 12 School Committee meeting. Nunes said the district's aim would be to make a decision on a candidate in January to hopefully start July 1.

A 'bittersweet' closing

"I tossed and turned," an emotional Gifford said of her decision to retire when she made the announcement in October.

An emotional Dr. Bonny Gifford looks on as Dartmouth School Committee Chair John Nunes reads a letter she'd written to announce her retirement after eight years as superintendent of schools.
An emotional Dr. Bonny Gifford looks on as Dartmouth School Committee Chair John Nunes reads a letter she'd written to announce her retirement after eight years as superintendent of schools.

In a letter she'd sent the committee to inform them of her plans, as read out loud by Nunes, Gifford wrote that she planned to spend more time with family, and that it's due to the "dedication and talent" of Dartmouth staff that the district "has flourished."

"And I am confident it will continue to do so in the years to come," she wrote.

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"After 32 years in education, it’s bittersweet to think about retiring," Gifford told The Standard-Times. "I can only hope my work has made a difference in the lives of the thousands of students who have traveled through the districts I’ve worked in. I’m looking forward to my next phase as I shift my focus and redirect my energies."

Aside from gaining valuable family time, Gifford says she wouldn't mind embarking on some new adventures. "I see lots of travel in my future!," she said.

A 32-year journey

Gifford began her education career in 1990 as a daily substitute middle and high school teacher in Westport, where she remained until 2005 serving in multiple other positions including special education teacher, computer specialist teacher, and department chair of the district's Business Technology Academy.

In 2005, Gifford landed her first administrative role as Administrator for Technical Programs at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School in Easton where she stayed until 2007, before becoming principal of Hastings Middle School in Fairhaven. Her work there earned her the title of Fairhaven's Woman of the Year in 2009. At the time, The Standard-Times reported that within two years, Gifford had turned "a struggling school into a successful one," Hastings having been on the state's "needs improvement" list prior to her arrival.

"This was wonderful experience as my team and I worked to build a positive culture where all students felt included and respected," Gifford said of her time in Fairhaven. "I loved being a principal but felt the urge to continue on my professional journey."

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And so she did, moving on to the Cape in 2010, first as assistant superintendent for the Nauset Regional School District, then as superintendent of Falmouth Public Schools. "While in Falmouth my husband and I lived on our 42-foot Grand Banks which we kept at Kingman Marina in Bourne. We lived onboard for two years even through the winter," she said. "It was quite an experience."

While Gifford says she was enjoying her time in Falmouth, when the superintendent's position opened up in Dartmouth, the opportunity was too great to pass up.

Dartmouth Superintendent of Schools Bonny Gifford is seen in this Standard-Times file photo in a meeting with school staff in 2021.
Dartmouth Superintendent of Schools Bonny Gifford is seen in this Standard-Times file photo in a meeting with school staff in 2021.

"I couldn't resist applying," she said. "Having lived right next door in Westport for my entire life, I looked at Dartmouth as home and was thrilled to be chosen. It’s been a terrific eight years in an exemplary district."

For Gifford, Dartmouth holds a special place

Asked of any aspects of working at Dartmouth Public Schools that have defined her time there, Gifford listed off a multitude of factors, one of them being a "solid working relationship" between the School Committee, district administration and town officials. "This is not always the case in many districts," she said, also noting a high level of involvement on the part of Dartmouth students' parents and families. "Funding provided by active parents’ groups such as the DSMA (Dartmouth School Music Association) and PTOs have ensured we have been able to support world class programs such as the music program."

Gifford also said that Dartmouth having many staff members who have a long history with the district makes an impact that can be felt. "Longevity has positively impacted the work we have been able to accomplish," she said.

In addition to her work in area school districts, Gifford has also served on the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents executive board and professional development committee; and as president of the Old Colony Roundtable. She has been the recipient of a President's Award from the U.S. Department of Education for outstanding contribution to education, and most recently in July 2022, the Daoulas Award from the M.A.S.S.

This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: Dartmouth schools meeting Dec. 12 to choose interim superintendent