Searches for Superintendents Hang on a Pivotal Decision

After Prince William privately chose its schools chief, it learned that Steven L. Walts was involved in labor disputes.
After Prince William privately chose its schools chief, it learned that Steven L. Walts was involved in labor disputes. (By Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 22, 2006

As many of the nation's school systems begin searching for new superintendents in the next few months, they will employ a traditional tactic: secrecy. In many cases, the process will involve only a select few who know who is being considered for what can be a municipality's most highly paid public job.

Candidates' names are withheld from the community during the search. Teachers and parents are cut out of the vetting process.

But the secrecy sometimes results in a lack of information. Search firms and committees sometimes don't get a complete picture.

In Manassas, School Board members who are choosing a new superintendent are all too aware of this notion. Last year, neighboring Prince William County privately selected a superintendent, Steven L. Walts from Greece, N.Y., only to learn afterward that he left behind a trail of labor disputes at his old system that has resulted in federal lawsuits.

So the School Board in Manassas -- which is one of three in the Washington area that will select a new superintendent this year -- is facing a conundrum: an open or closed search?

"Prince William is a cautionary tale. It was frightening. We don't need that," said Manassas School Board member Edward W. Pratt. "What they didn't get was percolating below the surface."

Within the frequently fractious realms of the nation's 15,000 school systems, there is widespread debate over which strategy to pursue. Methods vary among states and within them, but leading education experts -- including the heads of the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators and the National Association of Secondary School Principals -- agree on one thing: An open search is ultimately best.

"We are in an era of accountability, and parents and the community want to feel engaged in their schools," said Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association.

"The advantage to an open search is that it creates a transparent process. In some communities, the school board and superintendent are more important than the mayor."

But most superintendents do not want their identities revealed during a search. If they don't get the job, it can show disloyalty to their current school system and wreck their relationship with the community. School boards swooning at the nation's top candidates often grant them confidentiality rather than risk the candidates withdrawing their names.

It's a seller's market.

With the No Child Left Behind law ratcheting up academic standards and community members pointing fingers at the superintendent for lagging test scores, the pool of qualified schools chiefs is shrinking, particularly for major suburban systems.

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