In 2003, two years after Catherine Hamblett became superintendent of Litchfield (N.H.) Public Schools, Litchfield separated from the larger district of Hudson, taking with it an elementary, middle and high school, and leaving behind an entire infrastructure. "We had to set up new payroll, create new offices, accounts payable," says Hamblett, all before school returned to session.
Needless to say, it was a daunting task. Litchfield faced anticipated deficits, so Hamblett's first move was to analyze the budget to ensure it reflected the district's real needs. This proved to be a smart choice for the residential town with little industry and high enough property taxes that initiatives toward replacing the aging elementary school had failed during the last three town votes.
"We have a tremendous responsibility to a town that has a tax burden," says Hamblett. As such, she is always mindful of spending and looks for ways to keep costs down. Her savvy decisions return any unexpected funds from the year, resulting in tax adjustments in Litchfield's tax rate the next year. Hamblett knows the key to success is being responsible and building credibility. Today, she and her staff are continuing to build trust. Best of all, she says Litchfield is becoming a more unified district.
Didn't know a school could secede from its mother district? "It probably happens more in N.H. than in other states," says Hamblett. "Because [it] is a small state, and each community likes to have its own representative or spokesperson, there is the belief of local control."
Breaking up was (not so) hard to do:
Hamblett had her own expectations, like ensuring a seamless transition with a smooth opening of the academic year, and creating an effective working relationship with members of the budget committee and town selectmen by being more accessible. "I was fairly confident about most of the operational and academic expectations because of my previous experience in these areas."
Fancy fiscal footwork:
With only one month to change the payroll system, Litchfield's business administrator, accountant and payroll clerk had to make programming shortcuts. "We are still realigning the system, but it was worth it knowing that we made our first full payroll with very few errors."
Establishing a pre-separation transition-planning committee with budget- and community-member representation helped immensely, along with applying to use unanticipated revenues under emergency provisions to hire a clerical assistant. Also key was working with Hudson's superintendent to guarantee the smooth transfer of information and records.
Litchfield's summer reading, arts and athletic camps are all funded through grants and parent support to help keep down the town's tax burden.
Attention-grabbing achievement: Hamblett received the New Hampshire Business Review's inaugural Outstanding Woman in Business award. "She wasn't just a person good at her job but someone who goes above and beyond," says Jeff Feingold, New Hampshire Business Review editor and one of the judges. "What struck me about her is she wasn't just a superintendent, but she had been a teacher for many years and in the Peace Corps for three years. She's an administrator who 'gets it.' It's obvious in her approach to the Litchfield district."
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing editor.