Interim Chief Urges City To Put Aside Differences

By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2008

The interim superintendent of the Alexandria schools is urging the city to move beyond the acrimony that marked the tenure of former superintendent Rebecca L. Perry as it seeks a new leader.

William Symons, who has 18 years of experience as a superintendent in four school systems, including Charlottesville's, took over the 10,500-student Alexandria system last week but ruled out applying for the permanent position.

"It's an opportunity to get back into it without having to tackle all the tensions and pressures of a long-term relationship," Symons, 65, said as he began the job Thursday. He said it was time for Alexandrians to put aside differences for the good of the school system.

"They need to pull together as a total community, get on the right page for the future and not dwell on the past," Symons said. "The sooner everyone gets on that page and gets on with the mission, the better off everyone's going to be."

School Board Chairman Claire M. Eberwein said that 18 people have formally applied for the job Perry left Jan. 18 and that search consultants indicate eight are highly qualified. More possible candidates have been identified from a pool of 141 people who expressed interest. The application deadline is Feb. 19.

Experts aren't surprised that the job is drawing interest despite Perry's abrupt exit after more than six years. They credit the attractiveness of Alexandria and the surrounding region as a place to work and live.

"They've had a few bumps over the past years, especially over Perry, but the Alexandria district still has a pretty good reputation," said Paul D. Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington County. "Everyone knows about their problems, but applicants still see a nice town and an innovative school system. The lifestyle issue is a big positive."

Perry was ordered to hand over her keys and leave the school administration building by the close of business shortly after the School Board decided in a closed meeting to release her from her contract five months early.

In May, the board voted 5 to 4 to seek a new schools chief. The way Perry was suddenly removed caused consternation among some residents. Minutes after she left, a locksmith changed the locks.

"There was widespread dismay at how the process went," said Kitty Porterfield, a 29-year employee of Northern Virginia school systems and author of a new book, "Getting It Right: Why Good School Communication Matters." She said, "The community is very wary now."

Looking ahead, William Campbell, a PTA president and a member of the superintendent advisory search committee, said he wants a superintendent who did not rise through the traditional school ranks, perhaps a chief executive of a business.

Houston said some school systems have recruited such candidates recently with mixed results. "Some of them have been a disaster," Houston said. "The jury's still out on that model."

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