As many Rockville Central readers know, Montgomery County Public Schools superintendent Jerry Weast is stepping down after more than ten years. On Tuesday, the Board of Education formally selected the executive recruiting firm to conduct the search for his replacement: Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, based in Illinois. This is the same firm that led the search to find Dr. Weast. (They have also done most of the searches in the surrounding area, including Prince George’s County, Fairfax County, and Baltimore County).
Choosing a leader for one of the largest and best school districts in the nation is no easy task. The job is part CEO, part cabinet secretary, part community leader. You can’t just look for the “best qualified” candidate because there may not be a good fit with the community. In fact, some would argue that community fit is at least as important than qualifications.
A Public Role
Superintendent is an inherently public role. In large districts like ours, it is even more properly seen as a public position. Such searches are tricky, because when there are many legitimate public claims to have a say in the selection, it becomes a political question.
By “political,” I don’t mean “partisan.” I mean it in the highest and best sense. Politics, after all, is how we make decisions together in our community and our nation. In my view (of course I am a civic nerd so take it with a grain of salt), it is among the most important inventions of humankind.
Even if you aren’t a civic nerd like me, all would agree, I believe, that the search for the leader of a school district with more than 100,000 students ought to have a very strong public engagement component. The public voice is certainly not the only voice that must be heard, but it is critical.
Engagement vs. ‘Input’
With that in mind, I am concerned about how the process may unfold. I am worried that we will get engagement in name only.
This is an endemic problem throughout public life. Too often, public officials say they want to engage the public in this or that decision – and then go ahead and convene a hearing where everyone has three minutes to speak, or announce a “town hall” by sticking a notice up on a website, or by announcing an online survey where people can “be heard.” These are all decent methods of “gathering input” but they do nothing to make citizens feel heard. When was the last time, for instance, that you felt as if you had adequately made an important point in three minutes?
I got to thinking about this when I read an interesting article by the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County. The Coalition is a strong critic of the school district, and I often disagree with their assessments. But, sometimes I agree.
In this particular article, the Coalition pointed out that the search firm would likely be using an off-the-shelf online survey to “gather input” from the public about what kinds of qualities they would like to see in a superintendent. The article implied that using a standard online survey form was less desirable than something that would be created on a custom basis, and that this was emblematic of how the district seemed to be overpaying for the search contract.
For my part, I have no problem with using a standard web survey as a piece of the engagement strategy, and I don’t necessarily think the $35,000 search price tag is too high.
However, I have a problem with the online survey. The Coalition found other instances where it had evidently been used (for instance, Mill Valley, California) so I was able to take a look at the survey itself.
It is a series of more than 40 dense, jargon-filled qualities that respondents are supposed to assign 1-6 “important/not important” rankings to. My eyes glazed over after the first set. None of the questions are bad, mind you – it’s just that the whole thing is stamped “bureaucrat.”
Is This What We Can Look Forward To?
My worry is that this is a harbinger of what “community engagement” will look like: expert-driven, bureaucratic, and perfunctory.
I hope that more care and attention will be paid to engaging the community in this critical decision. Many factors come into play and expertise and qualifications are certainly key. But the district will have squandered an important opportunity if it does not authentically reach out to the community as a partner and not just as a source of “input.”
The full survey is copied below. (This is the version intended for “community members.”) Mind you, this has not been released as an official survey to be used in the Montgomery County search. However, this survey appears to be used frequently by the search firm.
Vision and Values
1. Articulate a clear vision of what is required to be an exemplary school district.
2. Act in accordance with the district’s mission, vision, and core beliefs.
3. Strive for continuous improvement in all areas of the district.
4. Have concrete plans to be actively involved in developing, monitoring, and evaluating the progress of school and district initiatives and implementation plans.
5. Promote high expectations for all students and personnel.
6. Lead in an encouraging, participatory, and team-focused manner.
7. Delegate leadership responsibilities effectively.
8. Demonstrate integrity, honesty, and fairness.
9. Serve as the district’s instructional leader.
10. Hold a deep understanding of the teaching and learning process.
11. Increase academic accountability at all levels of the district’s schools and for all its students.
12. Provide meaningful guidance on the district’s curricular and instructional programming.
13. Provide meaningful guidance on the implementation and management of a systematic district-wide assessment program.
14. Utilize student achievement data to drive the district’s instructional and assessment programming.
Community and Relationships
15. Be visible throughout the district and the community.
16. Understand the conditions, cultures, dynamics, and values of the school community.
17. Listen to and effectively represent the interests and concerns of students, personnel, and community.
18. Foster a positive professional climate of mutual trust and respect among faculty, staff, and administrators.
19. Seek a high level of engagement with principals and other school-site leaders.
20. Maintain positive and collaborative working relationships with the school board and its members.
21. Develop strong relationships with constituent groups, local government, area business, and external partnerships.
Communication and collaboration
22. Communicate effectively the plans, goals, and progress of the district to the Board, staff, parents, students, and the community.
23. Communicate clearly to the school community about student achievement in the district’s schools.
24. Facilitate the sharing of ideas, plans, and methods among various district stakeholders.
25. Provide constructive, meaningful feedback to personnel he/she supervises.
26. Involve appropriate stakeholders in the decision making process.
27. Encourage a sense of shared responsibility among all stakeholders regarding success in student learning.
Core Knowledge and Competencies
28. Possess strong understanding of organizational and educational leadership.
29. Possess strong understanding of emerging issues and trends that affect the school community and the mission of the school.
30. Possess strong understanding of current legal, regulatory, and ethical issues affecting education.
31. Possess strong understanding of personnel needs and requirements.
32. Possess strong understanding of the system of public school governance and finances in the state and nation.
33. Be an effective manager of the school district’s day-to-day operations.
34. Align operational plans and procedures with the school district’s vision, mission, and goals.
35. Identify, confront, and resolve district issues in a timely manner.
36. Effectively plan and manage the financial operations.
37. Align financial resources with student learning needs and the district’s vision, mission, and goals.
38. Recruit, employ, and retain effective personnel management teams throughout the district and its schools.
39. Apply policies and procedures fairly, wisely, and consistently.
40. Guide the usage and maintenance of school facilities to ensure secure, safe, and clean school environments that support learning.
41. Facilitate efficient delivery of supplemental school services (e.g., security, food service).
42. Please add any additional comments you wish to make regarding what you believe are necessary characteristics for a superintendent.
43. If you know of someone that you think would be a good candidate for this position, please share their name and contact information in this space.