Great expectations for Loudoun’s next school superintendent

January 8

Loudoun residents have high expectations for the superintendent who will assume control of the county public schools July 1, according to a survey conducted by the executive search firm that is managing the recruitment process.

The new superintendent will succeed Edgar B. Hatrick III, who has announced that he will retire June 30, after 22 years at the helm of the school system.

According to the survey, respondents want someone who is visionary, tech-savvy, innovative and open to new ideas. The new superintendent should be a good communicator who fosters trust and transparency, and someone who is both collaborative and decisive. In short, a deity should suffice, a representative of the search firm joked.

Hank Gmitro and Brad Draeger of the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates presented the survey report to the county School Board at a special meeting last Thursday. The report included the results of 179 interviews with school administrators, staff, students, parents and community leaders, as well as an online public opinion survey.

Gmitro said that the 4,181 responses to the online survey were the most of any search his firm had conducted, including one for Fairfax County, which is about three times the size of Loudoun and had about 3,200 responses last year. “So Loudoun County residents certainly expressed their point of view,” he said.

Those surveyed were asked what they saw as the school system’s strengths, the greatest challenges it is facing and what characteristics they hope to see in the new superintendent.

“The majority of people that we talked to, whether they be business leaders, community leaders, or parents . . . talked about the value of school system, the value it added to the quality of life in the county, the fact that it attracted people,” Gmitro said, characterizing Loudoun residents as “exceedingly well educated and invested in educational services.”

“One commenter . . . said that this a great school system, but it has the potential to be the best in the nation,” Draeger said.

About 57 percent of the respondents said they want a superintendent who listens to and effectively represents the concerns of students, staff members and parents, which Gmitro called “a reflection of what people feel is in place . . . and that they want to see that community engagement continue.”

He said it is very unusual to have so many people single out the same characteristic. “We almost never see a majority of people pick an item,” Gmitro said. “When you have 25 items and you’re picking eight out of those 25, it is rare that you get a majority agreeing on one of the top priorities.”

Those surveyed also said they want a superintendent who has an understanding of technology, both for instructional purposes and as part of the school system’s infrastructure.

“They want a visionary superintendent who . . . in conjunction with the board can say where we’re going in five to 10 years and articulate it, communicate it and get the funding and resources for it,” Draeger said.

Most of the School Board members were elected after pledging to reduce spending during their 2011 campaigns, and some appeared to be surprised at the level of positive comments about the school system.

Jeff Morse (Dulles) asked whether many people said that the school budget should be trimmed. Gmitro replied that it was not a frequent theme.

“Usually you get more, ‘Cut, cut cut. They’re wasting money.’ We didn’t hear a lot of that,” Draeger said. “If anything, with more transparency, I think there would be support for more money for the schools. I think they’re supportive of whatever it takes to have a really world-class school system here.”

The report concluded with a list of 11 desired characteristics that had been gleaned from the survey responses. Some School Board members indicated that the characteristics they most desired were not on the list.

Bill Fox (Leesburg) said he wants a superintendent who is a creative problem solver, “someone who . . . as we’re trying to deal with issues like budgets and new technologies and maybe some paradigm shifts in terms of 21st-century skills, someone who is able to see where we’ve all decided we need to go and be able to creatively figure out a path to get there.”

Kevin Kuesters (Broad Run) said he thinks the school system needs a change agent. “That’s what I see from the comments and . . . in my conversations,” he said.

Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) cautioned that using the term “change agent” in the recruitment process might give some potential applicants the wrong idea.

“I would probably be looking for someone who is capable of championing and embracing change,” Hornberger said. “That is probably the characteristic that I am looking for, rather than ‘change agent,’ because if I use the term ‘change agent,’ I feel like [I’m saying], ‘Oh, what we have is bad and we need to completely overhaul.’ And I don’t see that represented in the data that we’re presented, and I don’t necessarily think that is going to be a consensus approach of the board.”

Gmitro said he would produce another draft of the desired characteristics for School Board members to discuss at their next meeting, and he urged members to create a list that reflects the consensus of the board.

About 30 applications have been submitted, Gmitro said. Interviews will take place next month and in March, with a goal of making a decision by April so that the new superintendent can start July 1.

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