The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why national superintendent searches miss the best people for the job

The Montgomery County Board of Education has hired a headhunting firm for $35,000 plus expenses to launch a national search to replace Superintendent Joshua P. Starr, whose last day on the job is Monday. That's not much money, but it is still a waste of time and talent.

Big districts like Montgomery have national superintendent searches for the same reasons very rich men drive Lamborghinis — pride and fashion. They also probably have an unconscious fear of being ridiculed if they don’t act in the grand style expected of them.

School boards as smart as Montgomery’s would do better looking for a replacement among the skilled people they already have.

A national search will yield many candidates who have just been fired or are unhappy in their current superintendent jobs, not the best people to lead a district with similar problems. An internal candidate also is less likely to stumble into local bear traps.

Jay Goldman, longtime editor of School Administrator magazine, has an encyclopedic grasp of this issue. He has seen no good research on whether internal or external hires do better, but the trend is toward picking someone already in the district, he said, “because of the continuing decline in the quantity of candidates who want to do this increasingly thankless job.”

Montgomery is a special case because its school board vice president, Michael A. Durso, is a legendary former high school principal who knows more than any headhunter about what makes a good school leader. I have lost count of the principals in this region who told me Durso mentored them. He appears to be the only person ever to run schools successfully in each of our major jurisdictions — the District, Virginia and Maryland.

Montgomery should fire its search firm and let Mike do it. Durso knows the most likely local candidates better than anyone. As a frugal gentleman who loves kids and tolerates board meeting drudgery, his headhunting will be insightful and patient, with sandwiches in school cafeterias rather than big restaurant tabs.

Why would a district like Montgomery need anything more? It is a fine district, as you would expect with so many affluent and well-educated residents. Most of its voters support taxing themselves to pay teachers well and raise achievement even for the county’s low-income students.

Montgomery voters pick smart board members and aggressively remind them, as they should, when they make mistakes. The county’s parents tend to be ambitious, which leads to studious children and great teachers. The union and the board have developed what many consider the best teacher assessment system in the country.

No new superintendent has ever had to ride in to save Montgomery from disaster. Internal hires in such districts are rare because they are so unchic, but I know one recent example. Before Hillsborough County, Fla., Superintendent MaryEllen Elia was dismissed last month in a 4-to-3 vote by an addled board, she spent 10 years providing some of the most challenging opportunities anywhere for average students. In December, she was chosen as Florida superintendent of the year.

She arrived in Tampa, the center of that huge district, two decades ago as an experienced teacher looking for a job. She became a reading specialist, then a reading supervisor, then assistant superintendent for the unglamorous assignment of building new facilities. The Hillsborough board launched a national search for a new superintendent but stunned everyone by picking Elia instead because of her people skills and deep knowledge of learning.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said districts like Montgomery seek external candidates who are experienced and successful and have “some name recognition.” But that’s how the district picked Starr, and it didn’t work. Many educators in Montgomery County have Elia’s talent and temperament. Just ask Mike Durso who they are.