Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Local Expert on Memphis Schools Superintendent Search

Posted By on Tue, May 27, 2008 at 4:00 AM

As a former superintendent and an academic expert on school leadership, Tom Glass has seen quite a few superintendent searches but never anything quite like the current one in Memphis.

Glass, retired Professor of Leadership at the University of Memphis, sat in on all four finalist interviews at the city school board auditorium in May. The board has since narrowed the list to two finalists, Kriner Cash of Miami and Nicholas Gledich of Orlando.

Glass has also closely followed news stories about Mayor Willie Herenton's on-again, off-again interest in the superintendent’s job.

"Herenton is not someone you can script," says Glass, who was a superintendent and administrator in Michigan, Washington, and Arizona and was lead author of The State of the American School Superintendency: 2006.

"You never know what he is going to do. If the board did not wish to hire either of the finalists, what would happen then? Would they go out and look for more? Or hire internally for a year? Or consider the mayor? Who knows?"

Glass also noted the recent departure of the school system's communications specialist, Rita Cooper.

"Public relations is a one-way process," he says. "What this district has always needed is two-way communication. It's always been one-way directed. 'We will tell them what they need to know.' It's hard to develop two-way communication in a large district."

He sees a big hole in media coverage of the superintendent search -- and it's not the low-down on the non-finalists either. The bigger issue, Glass says, is the specifics of the contract for the next superintendent. What is the salary, and, equally important, what are the fringe benefits and buy-out provisions? Is the school district or the private sector paying for the search and/or supplementing the salary or buyout clause if there is one?

"Search firms are always quiet," Glass says. "They don't want to tell anybody about anything."

Glass is not surprised that the search firm is resisting making public the names of other applicants. "Some of the reasons are simple," he says. "If you are a sitting superintendent and the front page of your local paper says you are going to interview in Memphis, that does not help your relationship with your current board. It can be hazardous to the job that you have."

He gives the Memphis School Board credit for conducting the finalist interviews in public. Other boards he has studied, including the ones in Seattle and Dallas, did closed interviews. He calls all five Memphis finalists (one dropped out after her interview) "absolutely traditional candidates" with advanced degrees in education and school administration backgrounds.

"A few years ago there were more non-traditional candidates," he says, including a former Colorado governor who went to Los Angeles to run the school system.

All of the Memphis candidates, he says, have relevant experience. Both finalists can make a special case. Gledich is from Orlando, "which has always been an innovative district since the 1970s," and Cash is from Miami, "which is so huge."

There are some 13,800 school districts in the United States, but only 225 that have more than 25,000 students and only about 20 with more than 100,000 students. Memphis claims 113,000 students. Glass says that most large districts are majority-minority. At one time, 80 percent of those districts had minority superintendents, "but that may have changed in the last four or five years." The split between male and female superintendents in large districts is about even.

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