Atypical Candidate For Fairfax School Chief
Search's Focus On Frederick Official Surprises Many
By S. Mitra Kalita and Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; Page A01
Jack D. Dale arrived in rural Frederick County as superintendent eight years ago and set out to make changes: He gave teachers laptops, gave principals more control over their schools and set up Maryland's first charter school.
But his ideas came with a West Coast sensibility that was not always in sync with the conservative, fast-growing community, parents and officials said. His style was breezy, they said, and he often stumbled in communicating with parents.
Today he gets higher marks. Officials and parents, even those who are wary of him, say he listens and talks to them.
"I actually think he answers his own e-mails," said Jan H. Gardner (D), a member of the Frederick Board of County Commissioners.
Yesterday, people on both sides of the Potomac River were analyzing his sudden emergence as the leading candidate for superintendent of Fairfax County schools. The affluent but rapidly urbanizing Northern Virginia suburb has long lured families with the reputation of its schools, and its superintendency is often regarded as a plum appointment among educators.
In Frederick, many parents and public officials said they have long suspected that Dale nursed ambitions of running a larger district someday.
But moving to a larger district presents bigger challenges. Several education activists noted that one of those might be the need for greater discretion. Dale has drawn criticism for revealing to colleagues in Maryland and to school officials at a party Friday that he was Fairfax's choice to be the next superintendent. Fairfax officials will not confirm the appointment until they complete background checks and a site visit to Frederick this week.
Fairfax and Frederick are very different places. Fairfax has 166,000 students and activist parents across the political spectrum. The county's school population is 53 percent white, 17 percent Asian, 15 percent Hispanic and 11 percent black. Frederick's student body of about 40,000 is 83 percent white, 9.8 percent black and 4.1 percent Hispanic.
Dale, who skis and flies planes for fun, has a reputation among supporters and critics as an affable crowd-pleaser. He spent most of his career in three Washington state school districts, where his jobs included math teacher and principal. He was assistant superintendent of the Edmonds School District when he was hired by Frederick.
Frederick school officials say he has worked hard to keep parents informed, holding meetings about once a month at local schools. The meetings are billed as "Conversations With the Superintendent."
Jean A. Smith, who has been on the Frederick school board for 10 years, said Dale has been largely successful at what he was hired to do. He had a mandate to delegate more authority, she said, and he has.
Smith said she also admired Dale's ability to hear differing views. "He doesn't get insulted. He's willing to listen," she said. "I think his staff feels comfortable in contradicting him if they think he's wrong."
Smith said Dale also developed strategies for closing the achievement gap between white and minority students. He pushed to decrease class sizes in schools where the need was greatest, even if it meant increasing class sizes elsewhere. He also boosted the salaries of some teachers who agreed to be available nights, weekend or during the summer to help weaker students.
But results among minority students have continued to lag, as they have at other school districts, Smith said. "If anybody knew how to get rid of the achievement gap, they'd be a millionaire," she said.
When Daniel A. Domenech announced his retirement as the Fairfax superintendent in December, school officials promised a nationwide search for a replacement for the high-profile educator who had come from jobs in New York City and Long Island. They hired a prominent Chicago area consulting firm, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, to lead their efforts.
But this search was unlike the search for Domenech six years ago, in which finalists were revealed and interviewed publicly. This time, the School Board sought community comment at the beginning of its search and vowed to keep the scouting and interviews confidential.
Yesterday, board members defended a process that has been criticized as secretive, saying they weighed the community's views regularly against candidates' qualifications.
"We gave the public a lot of opportunities to weigh in on what they wanted to look for in a superintendent," board Chairman Kathy L. Smith (Sully) said. "We went through this process knowing what the community wanted. Then the search firm went out and got candidates."
The search firm interviewed and forwarded about a dozen candidates to the board, according to Bill Attea, a managing partner with the firm.
Most agreed to be interviewed only if the process was confidential, Attea and Smith said. Even then, despite Fairfax's size and reputation, several prospects balked, saying they were nearing retirement or not in a position to move, Attea said.
"Bigger is not always better," Attea said. "The superintendency itself is very volatile right now. Fairfax County wanted someone who was successful in their current position. . . . We contacted a minimum of five for every one that we considered."
Of the search firm's pool, the School Board chose to interview five, including Virginia's secretary of education, Belle S. Wheelan. Wheelan, a former president of Northern Virginia Community College, confirmed yesterday that she had applied for the job but that the board did not advance her to its list of three finalists after an in-person interview this month.
"I got a call . . . from the headhunter that they had chosen three, and I was not one of the three," Wheelan said. "All of the three were sitting superintendents."
Smith had no comment on Wheelan as a candidate. But education experts say Fairfax schools did not necessarily need to tap a household name as their leader.
Despite his low-wattage name, Dale may well be just the right choice for Fairfax County, said Andrew J. Rotherham, director of the 21st Century Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute in Charlottesville.
"The fact that he's not a famous name is not a good reason not to hire him," Rotherham said. "That really is the worst sort of vanity for which Northern Virginia is frequently ridiculed."
In February, Frederick's School Board voted to give Dale another four-year contract, to take effect July 1, said Marita Stup Loose, a Frederick schools spokeswoman. School officials said the contract was for $157,000 in salary plus benefits.
Today, Dale will meet with invited community, business and political leaders at the Fairfax School Board offices. Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said he will be meeting Dale for the first time.
"I want to hear his philosophy of how he and the school system ought to be interacting with the governing body," Connolly said. "I'll want to hear his views of who the stakeholders are in the school system, how to reach out to them."
Staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company