The announcement by Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Jack Dale that he will retire at the end of his contract has made this year’s School Board elections, already the most hotly contested races on the November ballot, all the more important.
The biggest responsibility for the new board will now be the selection of a superintendent to head the school district, the 11th largest in the country. He or she will be the CEO of an organization that employs more than 22,000 people, one of the largest employers in Virginia, and serves 177,000 students.
The next superintendent will inherit a legacy of academic success, with every high school in the county on Newsweek’s list of best schools nationwide. At the same time, the superintendent will confront a host of complex issues, ranging from continued fiscal pressures to concerns about school discipline to maintaining high academic standards.
“Fairfax County Cares About Its Schools” is not just a slogan on a bumper sticker. It is a reflection of a community that is passionately interested in the quality of education our children receive. Of course, that strong support also means that residents pay close attention to what the school system is doing. Let’s be honest: Being schools chief in Fairfax is not for the faint of heart. It’s a place where constituents not only have read the laws of the land but, in some cases, have written them.
Voters will undoubtedly think carefully about whom they want to choose the new superintendent. But right now, the question is not who will head the schools, but how that leader will be selected. Will citizens get a voice in the process? Or will the decision be made behind closed doors?
I understand the realities of searching for a new superintendent; I was the chairman of the school board in 1997, when we hired Daniel A. Domenech. It will be important for the school board to protect the privacy of applicants currently in other positions. Candidates’ employment can be put at risk if it becomes known that they are discussing a new job.
But the board must balance applicants’ privacy with the public’s right to know.
In the 1997 search, the school board tried to find a middle path. We had two community representatives — Gary Jones, a former school board chairman and a former U.S. Education Department official, and James Dyke, former Virginia secretary of education — as participants in our interview process. They were at the table for every step as we moved to select a list of three finalists.
At that point, we made the names of the finalists public. We held a forum at which members of the public asked questions of the candidates. By the time the board extended a contract offer, hundreds of citizens had weighed in.
In contrast, the search that led to Dale’s hiring in 2004 was entirely closed. The first time most people in Fairfax learned who their new superintendent would be was when they read his name in the newspaper.
That’s not fair to residents. And, ultimately, it’s not fair to the person selected.
Dale will serve through the end of his contract in 2013, but it’s not too early to start the process of public engagement. The first step should be to begin a community discussion about the job description for the new superintendent. As Terre Davis, who conducts superintendent searches, wrote last year in the magazine The School Administrator, “Community members, parents, district employees and students should be asked what they would like to see in the new superintendent — as to the professional characteristics, leadership skills and personality traits. They tend to be more in touch with the day-to-day needs than is the board.”
Once a job description is adopted, the board should outline how the community will be involved the rest of the way. Some possibilities they should consider: The interview and search process could include citizen representatives, and the board could commit now to holding at least one public meeting for residents to question the finalists. (Candidates have a right to know their names will be made public before they apply.) And in this age of social media, the board can explore new ways to use technology to open up the search. Candidates for the school board should be asked now about their willingness to keep the community as an active partner in the search.
Superintendents in Fairfax tend to serve long tenures. That’s a big plus, because school improvement is a sustained process. Since the next board will be hiring for the long term, the candidates need to begin a conversation, not a monologue, with county residents. The time to begin that process is now.
The writer, communications director for the think-tank Education Sector, was a member of the Fairfax County School Board from 1991 to 2000 and chairman of the board from 1996 to 1998.