'I was in crisis mode since day one': Shelton interim superintendent navigated COVID challenges

SHELTON — With the new year comes another job change for Beth Smith.

Smith, the interim superintendent during what she termed 10 “extremely challenging months,” passed the baton on Jan. 1 to Ken Saranich, who has spent more than a decade with the district, first as Shelton Intermediate School principal, then as assistant superintendent.

Smith will spend her final months as the district’s director of special education and support services.

“I’m excited to be back in that role,” Smith said, adding that being able to interact directly with students remains her greatest joy.

She said her goal since she started teaching was to “touch the life of a child every day. I would go to bed at night and think about that one child whose life I touched that day. If I couldn’t think of one that day, I would make sure I made a difference for at least two the next day.

“I will miss the students most of all,” Smith, a former teacher of the year and longtime coach, said about how she’ll feel when she reaches the last day of the school year.

“There are so many former students who reach out to me … all the time … and talk to me about what I meant to them,” Smith said. “There are so many teachers now that were my students. It’s amazing.”

One that stands out is Mohegan School Principal Darla Lussier.

Board of Education Chairwoman Kathy Yolish praised Smith during last month’s board meeting for “stepping into the task of running Shelton public schools during the most difficult time of a school system’s operation — a pandemic.”

“She has been known for excellence in crisis management and lived up to her reputation,” Yolish added. “Her many hours of focus and hard work did not go unrecognized and that is to be recognized and commended."

Smith became known for her weekly updates on the latest positive COVID tests within the district — which now sit at more than 100 with schools set to return to in-person learning on Jan. 11.

“The toughest thing I had to do was go to a school to talk to staff (during the pandemic),” Smith said. “You could see the fear all over their faces. But you can’t let that upset you … I could not let them see that fear on my face. I had to remain positive, offer a sense of calm.”

She said she had to become an even better listener, helping staff and students feel good about the educational experience in a world that changed rapidly in 2020.

“I was in crisis mode since day one — whether it was budget or COVID,” Smith said. “At least you could see an end to the budget mitigation. But I feel that I leave the district in a much better place than in March.”

Smith was a candidate for the superintendent position, but removed her name from consideration in late September, instead announcing she will retire at the end of the school year.

Smith, by contract, is moving back to supervisor of special education and pupil services, her job prior to taking the interim superintendent post.

Smith will leave Shelton in June after 35 years in education, most notably as the Shelton High principal until two years ago.

Within days of being named interim superintendent, Smith was faced with mitigating a $3.1 million budget deficit and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the closure of schools in mid-March and creation of a distance learning model to maintain student instruction.

Smith called leading the district through this tumultuous time as her “greatest accomplishment” in the superintendent role.

“I was able to help get this district through a disaster that the district, in the history of Shelton, had never faced,” said Smith, who called handling the pandemic and its impact on the schools a “full-time job in itself.”

Smith had been Shelton High principal for some 10 years. She was at the center of controversy over an alleged sex assault of a student last school year while she was the high school principal.

Smith, whose handling of the investigation into the allegations was investigated, was placed on administrative leave but ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing by the state’s attorney’s office. She then reached an agreement with the Board of Education to become the director of special education.

“The perception, with all the stories being put out, that I did something wrong,” Smith said. “But I never put out my side of the story. I will never speak about student disciplinary matters. I was not going to speak publicly.”

Smith said once the investigation was complete and she was cleared of any wrongdoing, she was disturbed the district never publicly stated the findings.

“I came into this position (as interim superintendent) with people completely against me … I was guilty before I even had a chance to give my side of the story,” Smith said.

Smith recalled her start at Shelton High, when she was immediately faced with the rebuild after the fire.

In 2015, Smith made the news by enforcing a policy that restricted girls from wearing specific styles of prom dresses.

In 2011, a student’s unorthodox method of asking a girl to the prom — he hung a sign on the exterior of the school entryway — got him banned from the prom until a social media campaign forced the administration to back down and let him attend.

“People talk about controversy, but I choose to reflect on the positive … I think about all the great things we have accomplished as a district,” Smith said.