Education

Consultant pushes Wake board to define what it wants in next school chief

Posted July 1, 2010 9:10 p.m. EDT
Updated July 1, 2010 10:44 p.m. EDT

— Wanted: A visionary who can make a great plan happen, a fund-raiser and cheerleader, an innovator who can get more disadvantaged students to graduate and keep bright students from leaving for private schools.

The Wake County Public School System is looking for a new superintendent , and the school board's Search Committee began working with its headhunter firm Thursday to pin down what it wants in the next chief executive for the 140,000-student, 18,000-employee system.

George Conway, the board's consultant from the Washington, D.C., office of recruiting company Heidrick and Struggles, pushed members to be as specific as possible in describing the "experience, qualifications and leadership characteristics of the next superintendent of schools."

"What are the biggest challenges," Conway asked the four-member committee in a back-and-forth discussion about how he could describe the job to potential applicants. Members had a range of answers to his questions, including agreeing that they seek someone with vision but would also like to see someone who has been able to put a plan into practice in a large organization.

Still undecided pending the school board's July 20 meeting are specific qualifications, including what level of education it will require and length of experience, if any, in a school system.

Conway will hold a series of meetings, all but one of them private, with various groups to see what they would like to see in the successor to Del Burns, who left the job Wednesday at the end of a suspension the school board imposed after he said he would resign and publicly disagreed with the current board's direction on school assignment policy.

The "stakeholder" groups identified initially for meetings are representatives from chambers of commerce in the county, town mayors, county commissioners, school principals, the Wake Education Partnership, the advisory councils for each school board district, district staff, teacher groups, the North Carolina Education Association and the county PTA Council.

Conway also suggested high school student council presidents, who he said have proved to provide "refreshing" views about what a school system leader should be.

A public meeting is also planned for anyone who wants to address Heidrick representatives, Conway said.

Committee Chair Debra Goldman said board members were not invited to the private meetings, and she urged members to stay away from the public meeting. Board meetings have drawn protests over its decision to drop socioeconomic diversity from criteria for school assignment, and Goldman said not having board members at the meeting would be "in the best interest of getting stakeholder feedback" about the next superintendent's qualifications and outlook.

"We hope to keep these groups focused" on the search, Conway said.

No dates have been set yet, but Heidrick plans to publicize the search and give a preliminary deadline of Sept. 1 for candidates to express interest. A closed-door first review with the Search Committee will be two to three weeks later, the committee and Conway decided.

Clearly, Conway said, the board wants excellence for the schools, but he pressed committee members to try to put specific goals with that.

Deborah Prickett said raising the 54 percent graduation rate among disadvantaged students was essential because previous efforts have not been successful enough. "That's not acceptable," she said.

At the same time, Prickett and Goldman said it's important to have high-level academic programs more widely available so talented students are less likely to transfer to private schools.

Member Chris Malone said the district should hire "someone who has had success seeing something and making it happen."

Members agreed that the district "has a tremendous staff" that can handle details if the new leader can articulate a vision and inspire support for it.

Committee member Carolyn Morrison said she hopes the person will have "an endearing quality of humility" in encouraging subordinates to experiment, giving them credit if efforts succeed and sharing blame if they do not.

Another aspect of the vision goal, the group said in response to a question from Conway, should be "someone who can tell the story and explain the needs" in seeking support from business and other sources outside the tax-supported funding from the state and the county.