Friday, June 14, 2024

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Wide and open search needed for new superintendent


Alamance-Burlington school board members will soon need to turn their attention to beginning a formal search for a new superintendent.

The interim superintendent, Dr. William Harrison, made abundantly clear this week that his tenure this time around will be limited to six months, ending September 18; he previously served as both an interim and subsequently full-fledged superintendent for three years (2015 to 2018).

Alamance-Burlington schools have had a series of weak, ineffective, and largely short-term superintendents over the past two decades.

We think it’s long past time to widen the search and change some of the secretive, “inside baseball” dimensions of the typical search employed by previous boards.

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What is especially needed, we believe, is sometimes referred to as an “open search,” one in which applicants are told from the outset that the finalists will be publicly identified prior to a board decision on a final selection.

In the past, ABSS school boards have shied away from such openness – as they have on so many topics – ostensibly because of the common, though mistaken, assumption that “the best people” won’t apply if their current bosses (i.e., their home school boards) know they’re looking for another job.

We think it should be pretty obvious, especially after the very short-term, failed tenure of Dr. Dain Butler, that this mindset hasn’t worked out very well.  Another colossal failure, resulting from the same process, included Dr. Lillie Cox, whose tenure ended in May 2014.

In both cases, Alamance County taxpayers were also left on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in having to pay to get rid of the subpar superintendents ($200,000, in the case of Cox, and as much as $218,400 voted earlier this month for Butler).

The problem with the secretive and closed process is that ineffective superintendent candidates are often able to conceal their flaws or defects during the search and interview process.

And because the school system wants to keep everything hush-hush, sources who might be able to provide significant insights into the potential applicants aren’t able to do so – precisely because they’re unaware a particular candidate is being considered.

We’ve been told repeatedly over the past few months, for instance, that some of the shortcomings that Butler exhibited here since last summer were also problems in his past tenure in Roanoke Rapids.

But ABSS board members apparently weren’t able to ask questions of Roanoke Rapids school board members or Halifax County commissioners during their recruitment process; if they had, they might have avoided a failed selection.

The next superintendent should be proud of the fact that he or she is applying for the 15th largest school system in the state.

Even those who are not selected should have nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about.

We don’t need a system that recycles the hand-me-downs from other failing school systems.

One of Butler’s most obvious failings, from the outset, was his inexperience with a school system the size of ABSS – which is one of the top 15 in the state, in terms of number of students.

That’s a significant issue, by the way: the size of the current school system overseen by superintendent candidates.

Butler came to ABSS from a school system with about a half-dozen schools in the entire “school system.”  That’s hardly equal to the size of one of the six, now seven, attendance zones in ABSS.

Similarly, Cox also came from a very small school system, in Hickory, which had fewer than a dozen schools.

There are often two primary formulas boards everywhere use to select superintendents (and often other public officials): one is to find an official who wants to “climb,” using successively larger and larger jurisdictions as notches in his or her belt as they climb from one school system to an ever-larger one.

The second is to find gems at the second or third tier within a larger school system, who have a broad background, but haven’t been in charge of the whole thing yet.

That was the approach used by former school board chairman, now superior court judge, Tom Lambeth in landing Jim Merrill back in 2000. Merrill had served in several top posts in the much-larger Wake County school system.

Merrill, by the way, also boasts the longest tenure with ABSS over the past several decades, having served six years. And, in our judgment, far and away, the most successful tenure here.

Also a key – one which was one of Merrill’s greatest strengths – is the ability to identify, mentor, and encourage good talent.  Merrill had an uncanny ability to find and promote the best – both from within the school system and applicants from outside, as well.

In fact, the combination of being able to lead on the academic front, as well as to be an effective administrator, is a rare combination, which ABSS has rarely had.

Perhaps the school system could entice Merrill, who was another former superintendent under consideration earlier this month for the interim post, to help, instead, with the upcoming search. He’s not far away, in Mebane (on the Orange side of the line, we believe).

Another formula for failure, however, used several times by other ABSS school boards, has been to recruit candidates who apparently envision ABSS as a nice, safe, easy place from which to begin their retirement.

This is not simply a matter of age, but rather vigor, creativity, and innovation.

We think it particularly noteworthy that Alamance Community College has employed the open process in both of its most recent hires.

Dr. Algie Gatewood served 10 years, and was one of the most effective leaders the county has had – at either ACC or any other public institution.

We’re certainly optimistic that Dr. Ken Ingle, who arrived earlier this year, will have a similarly good run here.

Another advantage of the open search process – used in both Gatewood’s and Ingle’s hiring – was to have public forums with the top finalists.

It allowed the board members (ACC trustees in this case), as well as faculty and staff, teachers, and the general public to get an idea of how each applicant handled interaction, questions,  and the unexpected.

Both the final selections shone in the process.

The school board has tried the closed methodology repeatedly over the past two decades – and with a series of flawed, failed, and mediocre results.

We think the school board needs to look beyond simply contracting with the state school boards association or one of the “usual” consulting companies.  That approach is too inbred. Their typical approach is to recycle superintendents (usually with disappointing records) from one North Carolina school system to another.

We may need to look beyond state lines.

Gatewood, for example, was a native North Carolinian whose most recent post had been in Oregon prior to coming to ACC.

Most importantly, the school system needs a educational leader.  One would think that should be obvious enough, but Alamance-Burlington schools haven’t had one since Merrill left in 2006.

These days, one could attend (or watch) school board meetings, for instance,  for weeks, even months, at a time and rarely hear any discussion or focus on academic excellence or improvement – not from school board members, not from the superintendent, and not from most school officials.

Most recent school superintendents have been on “cruise control,” or with limited areas of focus, such as finances and buildings, rather than improving the results that actually affect students within those buildings.

ABSS has plenty of experience with the closed system – and a half dozen failed superintendent tenures.

We hope they’ll try a new approach, with improved results.  The taxpayers – as well as students, teachers, and parents – deserve better than they’ve gotten.

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