The next superintendent of Riverside Elementary District 96 has never been a classroom teacher or a superintendent before, but school board members believe that they have found the right person for the job, saying that they have hired a person of great integrity.

On Tuesday evening, the District 96 Board of Education voted unanimously to hire Martha Ryan-Toye as its next superintendent. Ryan-Toye, 52, will take over in District 96 on July 1.

Ryan-Toye received a three-year contract and will have a base salary of $175,000 in her first year in District 96.

Ryan-Toye has worked for River Forest District 90 for the last 22 years. For the past six years she has been the director of student services, a post akin to an assistant superintendent. Prior to assuming that position, Ryan-Toye served for 16 years as District 90’s director of special education. 

Ryan-Toye impressed board members in her two interviews with her character, knowledge, communication skills, and demeanor, according to District 96 school board President Jeff Miller.

“In addition we are impressed by her collaborative style of leadership, her excellent communication skills, her commitment to engage the community, her long, stable and successful tenure at River Forest and finally, and perhaps most importantly, by her commitment to doing what is best for students,” Miller said.

At District 90, Ryan-Toye worked with District 96’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, Merryl Brownlow, for six years when Brownlow was the principal of Willard School. Board members liked that Ryan-Toye and Brownlow had worked together before.

“That was certainly a consideration,” Miller said. “The entire board considers Merryl to be a very important part of the administrative team, really a key part, so it was important for us to get someone who would work well with her.”

Brownlow described Ryan-Toye, who was never her direct boss at District 90, as thoughtful, reflective and a problem solver. 

“When I was working with her one of her incredible strengths was her ability to listen and really consider everyone’s perspectives when making decisions, and I think that’s how she was able to move a lot of things forward in her role in District 90,” Brownlow said.

Ryan-Toye worked as the special education director under former District 96 Superintendent David Bonnette for a little over a year in 2007-08 when Bonnette served as an interim superintendent for District 90.

“She was extremely competent and well respected,” said Bonnette, who led District 96’s search for a new superintendent with former Lyons Township District 204 Superintendent Dennis Kelly. “She is a very stable, predictable person.”

Neither Bonnette nor Brownlow recruited her for the job.

“She applied on her own,” Bonnette said. “I did not recruit her.”

Ryan-Toye, who received her superintendent certification in December 2015, said she found out about the opening on her own.

 “It wasn’t like David or Merryl tapped me on the shoulder and said you should do this. It was kind of a coalescing of some things in common,” Ryan-Toye said.

Unlike many school administrators, Ryan-Toye has not moved from district to district as she’s ascended the ladder. Board members believe that Ryan-Toye, who lives in Oak Park with her husband and three sons, could stay in District 96 for a long time and give the district the stability that board members are looking for.

Board members believe that Ryan-Toye is not looking at the District 96 job as a stepping stone.

“We really want someone who we believe has a good chance of being here in our district 10 years from now, because that’s how you build on things,” Miller said.

Ryan-Toye was introduced to an overflow crowd at a Feb. 2 school board meeting.

“As I considered the role of superintendent, I was invested in finding a small, caring, supportive school district to call home, and Riverside promises all of that,” Ryan-Toye told the school board and audience in statement after her contract was approved.

“I am impressed by the sense of community and the commitment to children that has been evident throughout my interview process.”

In an interview with the Landmark, Ryan-Toye said that she was aware of some of the controversies in District 96 in the past few years but that any concerns she had were allayed by meeting with the school board and a committee of staff and parents that also interviewed the finalists.

Ryan-Toye said that she has a collaborative leadership style.

“I’m very passionate about this really important work of getting public education right,” Ryan-Toye said. “And I am really most interested in how systems fit together, how we all fit together and have this positive synergy that focused on kids.”

District 90 Superintendent Ed Condon said that Ryan-Toye will be missed in River Forest.

“Martha has been an incredible asset to District 90 over her 22 years of service, earning the trust and confidence of parents, faculty and staff, well as well our village’s public officials,” Condon said in an email sent out Wednesday to District 90 staff and parents.

Elementary school music teacher Bill Howes, the president of the teachers union in District 96, was on the committee that interviewed the finalists. He said he was very impressed with Ryan-Toye.

“I’m very excited that she’s going to be our superintendent,” Howes said. “It’s going to be a great way to move forward, I think. The thing I was most impressed by was just the feeling of confidence that she portrayed and brought with her and made me feel.”

Ryan-Toye grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northwestern University in speech pathology. She began her career as a speech therapist at a private day school for autistic children in Chicago.

After two years, she became the assistant principal at a private school for children with emotional difficulties before moving back to the school for autistic children as the director/principal. She led that school for five years before being hired at District 90 as their special education coordinator.

“I spent very little time in the classroom setting,” Ryan-Toye said. “I moved into leadership very quickly.”

Howes said that he isn’t concerned about her lack of classroom experience.

“I know many people who have gone into administration who haven’t been classroom teachers and they do a wonderful job,” Howes said.

Ryan-Toye holds a master’s degree in educational leadership and administration from Concordia University and is a doctoral student at Loyola University. She was the only semifinalist without a doctoral degree. At Loyola, she must finish two more classes and write a dissertation to get her doctorate.

“The other candidates were very strong, and I think each of them would have done a fine job,” Miller said, “but she really stood out as the best option for our particular situation.” Miller said.

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