Education

Residents ask for a Wake schools chief with a big toolbox

Posted July 14, 2010 2:15 p.m. EDT
Updated July 14, 2010 2:25 p.m. EDT

Wake County Public School System

— Boil down what a group of Wake County residents said Wednesday, and they want the next school superintendent to be a healer, an advocate and a leader, preferably with budget savvy and classroom experience.

It also would be good, they said, to be able to use data to shape decisions and to be able to get along with a school board that frequently splits over policy matters and disagrees about how much control it should exert over the operation of the 140,000-student system, the state's largest.

About three dozen people turned out to tell a search firm what it should look for in the person who will be hired to replace Del Burns, the superintendent who resigned earlier this year after he split with the five-member county school board majority over policy changes.

A series of 5-4 votes to shift away from diversity-driven assignment policies and toward community schools – a process that will take more than a year to implement – colored the comments of several people.

The superintendent needs to "know how to not be a puppet of the school board ... but not get fired in the first year," resident Melanie Taylor told Dale Jones and George Conway, consultants from the Washington, D.C., office of search firm Heidrick and Struggles, which has an $80,000-plus contract to help find candidates to be Burns' successor.

Several times during the two-hour session at school headquarters, Conway told the group that the company had not been told to hire a non-educator, but rather to "leave no stone unturned" in finding the best candidates, including any from outside education.

Recent comments by board members had led some in the audience to believe that Heidrick was told to find a business or military leader to run the system.

While some called for competency in running a large-budget organization, others speaking Wednesday disagreed with analogies to running a business.

"Education is not a business in any fundamental sense of the word," Jim Martin, a chemistry professor at North Carolina State University, said. No business tries to make something without control over the raw materials it uses, he said, but a public school system takes "whoever and everyone" who comes and has to try to have them all succeed.

Others advocated more services for disabled and gifted students, and several people called for a superintendent who understands the need for more vocational education for students who are "gifted with their hands" rather than being college-bound.

Samuel Greene of Raleigh, a retired school principal, told Conway and Jones that the next chief executive needs to be able "to bring communities together." The person will, he observed wryly, have to be "almost a bouncing ball," given so many 5-4 votes on the board since four new members were elected in November. They have formed a majority, with Chairman Ron Margiotta siding with them to settle 4-4 splits on several issues.

Speakers almost uniformly wanted someone who has been in education, many of them asking for someone with classroom experience.

"At UPS, everybody's delivered packages" on trucks for some period of time, no matter what their job, because they have to know the basic business, said parent Vickie Adamson. The former director of financial reporting also said the school board has made "novice mistakes" in budget reviews and needs someone who understands the operation of large school systems.

Businesses are worried, some speakers said, that the nationally reported recent divisions over school policy will harm the system, which Conway noted is touted in recruiting workers to the area. Diversity advocates have staged rallies against the changes, and some have been arrested protesting at board meetings.

"This superintendent is going to walk into a hotbed of discontent," parent Ann Sherron told Conway and Jones. A citizen member of the board's Student Assignment Committee that will help craft attendance zones based on the community-schools policy, Sherron said the new superintendent will have to understand that different parts of the county have differing ideas of what "community" is. A big job will be "trying to bring the county together," Sherron said.

Acknowledging that feelings have run high over schools issues in recent months, Conway said he hoped everyone would give the board's eventual choice for superintendent a chance to get known.

Jones told the group that a series of meetings this week with several "stakeholder" groups, including principals, business leaders and student council presidents from the high schools, has left the impression that the school system isn't broken, "but public trust has been broken" for at least some groups.

"We're starting off looking for a 9-0 vote" for a final candidate, Conway told the group.

Conway said the consultants have to finish a series of meetings with individual board members to hear what they would like to see, then will meet again with the school board's Superintendent Search Committee "in the next couple of weeks."

Heidrick and Struggles, he said, is compiling the "competencies" that the various groups have asked to have included in the job description of the next superintendent.

There is no hiring deadline, he said, but he added that it would be helpful if someone could be found to come on board before the end of the current school year next summer so that person could have a chance to see the system in operation.