Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Superintendent Search

What to expect — and not expect — in the field of finalists.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 3, 2013 at 10:03 AM

After watching the coming and going of five Memphis school superintendents, I can't say I know how to pick the next one, but I know a little about how NOT to do it.

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The Unified School Board has a little over a month to come up with a name or a bunch of names that will be interviewed before the winner is chosen. The next superintendent will preside over the first year of the unified county school system after Memphis City Schools goes away July 1st and possibly the first year of the aftermath of separate suburban systems, if they start up in 2014.

Pretty hard lines, I would say.

Meanwhile, Dorsey Hopson and David Stephens are acting superintendent and deputy superintendent. Hopson is former legal counsel to Memphis City Schools, and Stephens was an administrator in the Shelby County Schools. He is also the son of O.Z. Stephens, the co-author of the Plan Z busing in the 1970s. The unified system could do a lot worse than retaining these two gentlemen for at least a couple of years, but the search goes on.

Don't expect much of anything to come out of the series of community meetings now being held around the city and county to get citizen input. Search firms do this as part of their checklist and make a fuss over writing everything down. Last time, before Kriner Cash got the Memphis job, a handful of people showed up at most of them. People respond to specific candidates and controversies more than they do to "what qualities do you like?" surveys.

Don't pay too much attention to candidates with big awards on their resumes. The cheating scandal in Atlanta's public schools is the big story in education now.

Former superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 others were indicted last week on racketeering charges. Hall was the American Association of School Administrators' superintendent of the year in 2009, and Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, hosted her at the White House. Former MCS superintendent Gerry House won the award in 1999, left the next year, and has not held a job in public education since then. Carol Johnson, MCS superintendent from 2003 to 2007, was named superintendent of the year by the National Alliance of Black School Educators in 2008.

Don't expect candidates to brag about big increases in student test scores. Such claims are suspect, if not toxic, these days. The Atlanta indictments, coupled with the federal indictments in Memphis of several people involved in a teacher certification scam, indicate that some teachers will cheat to get a job or bonus.

Don't expect the next superintendent to have a bonus clause in his or her contract. Hall earned more than $500,000 in bonus pay, because Atlanta students supposedly scored so highly on standardized tests. Cash's contract paid him $290,479 this year and had a clause in it that allowed the school board to award him a performance bonus of up to $10,000 annually, but "I don't think the board ever awarded Dr. Cash a bonus," Hopson said.

Don't be surprised if the next superintendent earns more than Cash, who was not the highest-paid school administrator in Tennessee by a long shot. According to public records, William Moseley, head of the private K-12 Ensworth School in Nashville, earned $700,133 in 2010-2011.

Don't expect Hopson and Stephens to have smooth sailing if they are the default choice. The last insider to serve as MCS superintendent, Johnnie B. Watson, was so exasperated by board member Sara Lewis (now on the unified board) that he filed a harassment complaint against her. The Memphis Education Association and Shelby County Education Association will oppose any superintendent who favors more school closings and major revisions to the teacher-pay structure.

Don't expect a long-term relationship. Superintendents are a little like college football coaches. The scrutiny is constant, the pressure is intense, and the odds of them leaving if they're unpopular or being hired away if they're successful are overwhelming. The average tenure of the last four Memphis and Shelby County superintendents was four years.

Finally, don't be surprised if the finalists include at least one 30-something hard-charger from the "school reform" movement with a background in Teach For America. That fits the profile of Tennessee education commissioner Kevin Huffman and Achievement School District superintendent Chris Barbic. Such a candidate would win favor from the Gates Foundation and board members like Tomeka Hart (now working for TFA) and Martavius Jones. In a time of guaranteed upheaval, why go old school?

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