Tuesday, May 17, 2022

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

More open, more competent search for next supt. badly needed

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School board members are scheduled to resume their discussion about beginning the search for the school system’s next superintendent next week.

We suggest that they take a more open approach that other government agencies have taken in recent years.

It is an increasing, and welcome, pattern for cities, counties, and school systems to have their traditional closed-door search among applicants who apply for the top job.

But an increasing number of jurisdictions have included in their overall parameters that finalists will be publicly revealed, allowing the public to meet and, sometimes, question them before making a final decision.

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But it’s important that the applicants know from the outset that if they make the final cut, they will be publicly identified.

We think there are several reasons why a more open approach is commendable.

When everything is done in secret – as school boards and other public bodies have historically done and are eager to continue doing – there is the considerable risk that significant potential issues in the candidates’ backgrounds will go undetected during the search.

Two notable local examples: Burlington’s search for a new police chief foundered, after the next chief (from a small town in Georgia) was announced earlier this year by city manager Hardin Watkins. Instead, within a few weeks of his scheduled arrival, the new chief backed out.

It seems more likely that if the candidate were one of a few finalists, his decision on whether to continue in the process, or withdraw, would have been more likely – and Burlington would have been spared having to re-start the process.

(The good news in this bad experience is that the city ended up where it should have started: by promoting a capable, competent, and personable internal candidate, Brian Long, to be the city’s new police chief.)

The second example is in Graham where the results of its city council’s secretive search for a city manager ended with a decision to hire Megan Garner, formerly Rural Hall’s town manager. Now Garner is faced with legal action from her former employer which may, or may not, embarrass Graham, her new employer.

Had Garner been identified among the two or three finalists, the “dirty laundry” within Rural Hall might have come out sooner, rather than the night before Graham’s council voted to hire her.

Across the state and nation, increasing numbers of school systems, cities, and counties are hiring school superintendents, city managers, county managers, and police chiefs in a more open manner whereby the top candidates (usually two to five) are publicly announced.

Recently Raleigh conducted a public forum with its top three candidates for police chief, and Hendersonville did the same with its top two.

Residents can have greater confidence when they can see and assess for themselves the caliber of the final candidates.

Guilford County and Asheville have both undertaken superintendent searches in recent years in which the finalists were named and an open forum, of sorts, was held for the public.

Interestingly, at least one of the companies being considered by the school board, BWP and Associates, has done such a search for a school superintendent for at least one South Carolina school system. (Although, full disclosure: the same company brought current superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson, whose three-year tenure had been unremarkable, at best.)

Surely, though, the best example of how this process can work well was Alamance Community College’s ultimate selection of Dr. Algie Gatewood to be its president (now for eight years). Gatewood was then, and remains, an impressive educator, administrator, leader, and spokesman. He was one of six finalists publicly identified and introduced at a public forum at ACC – before his ultimate selection.

As it is, the current closed process too often results in “bad pennies” among public employees being recirculated from one jurisdiction (where they may even be on the verge of being pushed out) to a new, unsuspecting one.

In particular, it seems to us that the school boards association all too often simply reshuffles mediocre superintendents from one school system to another. Witness the last several picks for Alamance-Burlington schools which that organization “helped” with.

Another favorite form of “recycling” is to get someone from another state – i.e., two of the last three ABSS superintendents were from Virginia – so they can ultimately claim a N.C. retirement in addition to the one they’ll already get from their home state.

We’re sure all that extra income – to double-dip now while working here and later when retired – is great for the superintendent. It’s not necessarily such a great deal for ABSS.
It certainly hasn’t been.

While we wish the school board would pursue a more open approach, we recognize that is a leap which may be too great for some current board members.

But if they’re going to pursue the more traditional approach, we do have a suggestion: consult with Dr. Jim Merrill – the best superintendent the school system has had in the past 25 years – for his insights.

Merrill went on to larger school systems in Virginia Beach and later back to Wake County after a stellar performance in Alamance-Burlington schools.

We haven’t had anyone with the dedication to academic excellence, constructive coaching for teachers and principals, and a commitment to classroom and school discipline – and who was fundamentally competent and knew how to hire others of similar abilities.

Merrill now has a consulting firm that might well be one the school board should consider. (While we haven’t seen or talked with Merrill in several years, he is, far and away, the most competent person the current school system could consider to assist them in finding a higher caliber superintendent.)

ABSS can ultimately be no stronger than the superintendent and school board that lead it.

We’ll learn a lot about the latter based on how they pursue looking for the former.

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