When the District's top officials return from the Democratic National Convention in Boston today, their main task will be to complete the search for a new schools chief that began in November with the resignation of Paul L. Vance.
After two front-runners dropped out in May and June, a new group of four finalists, all veteran educators, was selected last week by a search committee that includes Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and members of the D.C. Council and Board of Education.
Members of the search committee said they are satisfied with the current pool and spoke about the need to end the protracted search. A subgroup of the committee will narrow down the list of finalists, but the nine-member school board has the authority to hire the superintendent.
Robert E. Schiller, 57, has arguably the most extensive resume of the four finalists and was given the highest score when the committee ranked the candidates last week. Superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education since 2002, he oversees an independent agency with an $8 billion budget, nearly 500 employees and responsibility for standardized testing, curricula and teacher certification.
Schiller has spent much of his 35-year career in education as a troubleshooter. He has held top state education jobs in Delaware, Louisiana and Michigan. He was interim superintendent in Baltimore from 1997 to 1998 -- during a temporary state takeover of the 110,000-student system -- and led the schools in Shreveport, La., from 1999 to 2002.
In Illinois, fiscal pressures have forced severe cuts in the state board's budget and staff, and Schiller has been caught in a running feud between the board and Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D). In January, the governor proposed putting oversight of the state's 900 school districts directly under his office.
On July 24, the state legislature approved a scaled-back plan that would allow Blagojevich to replace most of the board. The reconstituted board would probably terminate Schiller's three-year contract, which expires next year.
"I'm sure that his days are numbered here," said Clay Marquardt, executive director of the Illinois Education Association, one of two state teachers' unions that have fought the board over teacher certification and testing. "It was an agency under attack when he got here, and it's remained under attack." Marquardt, however, described Schiller as "open and candid" and "very knowledgeable" about school finance.
Schiller is credited with establishing good relations with the state legislature and prepared Illinois schools for the new testing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, said Ronald J. Gidwitz, a member of the state board since 1999. "He is dogged in pursuing the objectives that have been laid out and agreed to," Gidwitz said. "He does it in a way that does not create dissension."
If Schiller, who declined to be interviewed, came to Washington, he would be the first white person to serve as permanent superintendent since 1969. Eighty-four percent of the city's public school students are African American.
Eugene T.W. Sanders, 47, is the youngest of the four finalists and was ranked second by the committee. Since 2000, he has been the superintendent in Toledo, managing a $340 million budget, 5,000 employees and 35,000 students.
Sanders has spent his entire career in Ohio, beginning as a high school teacher in his home town of Sandusky and serving as an assistant principal at two high schools in Lorain County, west of Cleveland. He taught at Bowling Green State University, where he received a doctorate in 1992, and wrote a textbook on urban school leadership in 1999.
As a consultant to the Toledo school district, Sanders was a member of a committee that searched for a new superintendent. In the end, the school board gave him the job. "He had worked with us, but he was not from the system, and that was a plus in our eyes," said David E. Welch, the school board president.
Sanders's most cited accomplishment was spearheading support for a bond issue in 2002 that authorized $823 million for what is described as the largest building construction and renovation project in Toledo's history. He also established two same-sex "academies" for elementary-age students.
Toledo, Ohio's fourth-largest school district, has been under a state-declared "academic emergency" since 1998. Sanders has directed financial assistance and provided reading consultants to the lowest-performing schools.
Relations between Sanders and the school board have been collegial. Although Sanders's initial five-year contract was recently renewed until 2009, he requested -- and received -- the board's permission to interview for the job in Washington.
"When he was hired, he committed to a collaborative relationship with the school leaders and with the union presidents, and he has followed through with that in his tenure," said Francine Lawrence, president of the 3,400-member Toledo Federation of Teachers, which negotiated a major pay agreement with Sanders in 2001.
The other finalists are two longtime urban superintendents. John W. Thompson, 59, has been Pittsburgh's superintendent since 2000, overseeing 35,000 students and a $486 million budget, and previously led the schools in Tulsa for six years. His tenure has been marked by conflict among the school board's nine members over school closings and the district's math curriculum.
In September, a mayoral commission concluded that "complex, troubling problems deeply rooted within the school system" could be solved only by restructuring the all-elected school board.
Board member Alex Matthews praised Thompson for his "sense of urgency." Jean Fink, a leading opponent, said Thompson can be strong-willed and a poor communicator, but added: "He truly cares very much about children." A clause prohibiting Thompson from interviewing for other jobs expired last month when the board did not act to renew his contract, which expires next year.
Clifford B. Janey, 58, was superintendent in Rochester, N.Y., from 1995 to 2002, managing a $575 million budget and the schooling of 33,000 students. He left the city after two consecutive budget crises, which his defenders attributed to a major downturn in the state economy that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Janey worked in Boston's public schools from 1973 to 1995, starting as a reading teacher and ending as the system's chief academic officer.
In Rochester, Janey improved school safety and literacy programs and took a flexible approach to high schools that gave students more time to graduate. "He has made extraordinary efforts to keep class sizes as low as possible, especially at the most crucial junctures and at the lowest grades," said Adam Urbanski, president of the 3,700-member Rochester Teachers Association. Janey last year was appointed a vice president at Scholastic Inc., an educational publisher based in New York.