Selecting a superintendent is widely considered the single most important decision a school board can make, and leaders of the Wake County Public School System are about to make that decision – again.
Former Superintendent Anthony Tata was on the job for about 1½ years before he was fired in September. A retired general, he put a lot of time and effort into outreach and cultivating support among parents and community groups, but he was also known for having a brash leadership style, one that often led to clashes with principals, central office staff and members of the current board majority.
Tata’s predecessor, Del Burns, was a career educator who held the position for 3½ years before he resigned after a different board majority dismantled the district’s longstanding diversity-based student assignment policy. Burns was a career educator who worked well with principals and central office staff but was not well known beyond the schoolhouse door.
Now, many say, the district needs someone who knows how to work with Wake County’s many and varied constituencies as the nation’s 16th largest school system grapples with unrelenting growth, severe budget restrictions and the sharp divides that exist among board members and in the school community as a whole.
“We need somebody,” said Patty Williams, program coordinator for the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, “who has a vision, who will work collaboratively with the board, with staff, with principals and other personnel out in 169 schools and really help create and implement a vision for our school district over the next 10 years.
“It’s a huge job,” she said. “It’s like being the president of the United States on a slightly smaller scale.”
So far, the only name in the mix is that of interim Superintendent Stephen Gainey. The official selection process has not yet begun, and Gainey has not said whether he’s interested in the job, but many consider him a strong contender. Gainey’s trajectory in education began as a math teacher at Apex High School. He later became principal of Leesville Road High School, and in 2009 he was named assistant superintendent for human resources.
“I’ve worked with Stephen for a long time,” said former principal and board Chairman Kevin Hill. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Stephen and his abilities and his integrity. Should he have an interest, I would give it strong consideration, but it would be in relationship to all the applicants.”
Hill said he hopes to have a new superintendent by July 1, if not sooner, but first the board must find a replacement for outgoing board member Chris Malone, who is expected to step down from his District 1 seat within the next two to three weeks so that he can assume his role as a newly elected member of the state legislature.
Whether the job goes to Gainey or someone else, the school board is expected to keep the cost of finding a new superintendent to a minimum, which means the North Carolina School Boards Association could be tapped to conduct the search. It’s coordinated superintendent searches for nearly 70 North Carolina school systems and charges $14,500 per search, far less than the $82,500 charged by Heidrick & Struggles to find Tata.
Given the looming issues related to growth, budget constraints and the district’s student assignment plan, Hill said an ability to collaborate will be a key characteristic of the incoming superintendent. “If someone’s open to suggestions and good advice and team work,” he said, “that makes it easier to solve those problems.”
Board member Jim Martin echoed the need for a collaborative leader, but with this caveat: “I’m not looking for someone who is going to be a yes man or a yes woman. Blind agreement is as destructive as automatic contrast…. I want someone who thinks critically and discerningly.”
The issue that has most polarized the board and the district in recent years is the student assignment policy. For nearly three decades it was predicated on maintaining diversity, and for years it succeeded in making sure that there were no high poverty schools.
Unremitting growth, however, severely tested the old policy. As student assignments adapted to growth patterns and a rapid succession of new schools, students and parents in many parts of the county became increasingly unhappy with the inherent problems – long bus rides, multiple school changes, and hard-to-juggle year-round schedules.
Things came to a head in 2009 when a group of conservative board members won a majority and promptly abolished the diversity component of the assignment policy. Three years of contentious debate ensued, a new assignment policy was put in place, and the board majority flipped – again.
The current majority favors diverse schools, but making that happen is not a simple task. They must come up with yet another assignment plan, one that keeps pace with growth, strives to keep students in the same school from start to finish, and does away with high poverty schools.
Citing statistics that depict a high graduation rate for certain students, particularly white students and those in middle and upper income brackets, Williams said, “The glass is half full. Many children are receiving a good education, a very strong, positive education.” But many others are not.
“The responsibility,” she said, “that we all have and the systems have is to educate everyone and provide them with a high quality education.”
An issue that goes hand in hand with the student assignment policy is the need for a new bond to pay for additional schools. “We are enormous both in square miles and in numbers of students,” said Karey Harwood, a member of the Great Schools executive committee.
The Wake County Public School System encompasses 835 square miles. It has more than 151,000 students and as many as 37,000 more are expected to enroll by the 2020-2021 school year. To keep up, the district will need to build upwards of 20 new schools in the next few years.
The need, Hill said, is well documented. “County staff and school system staff have worked very well together,” he said, “and (they) continue to work closely, unlike the two boards have been doing, and there seems to be a consensus. We really need this bond.”
It is one of many issues, Hill said, that will require a leader who has good communication skills and knows how to work effectively with a cross section of constituents.
“We have to find a way,” he said, “to help the community and members of the county commissioners understand that the bond to build schools is not a political issue. It shouldn’t be. The kids are coming regardless, (and) it’s going to have a trickle down impact on a lot of issues if we don’t build schools.”
In many ways, Wake’s next superintendent has to be jack of all trades.
“You’ve got to be a manager,” Martin said. “You’ve got to understand curriculum, you’ve got to understand sociology and how people interact. It’s a job that requires a very diverse skill set.”
What many stakeholders said they do not want is a superintendent with an agenda. “I don’t care if it’s a liberal agenda,” Martin said, “a conservative agenda, or a polka dot agenda. We don’t want to hire somebody who is driving an agenda.”
Members of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition want the next superintendent to be a career educator, someone with experience in the classroom. “No more professional hires from the military, or business,” Williams said. “I’m a business person. I do not believe business people should be running a school district. …. The superintendent needs to be professionally trained and a highly experienced educator.”
Given its size and its prominence in the state, Wake County is likely to attract a large pool of willing candidates, said board member Christine Kushner
While she would like the new superintendent to have a background in education, Kushner said she intends to look at each candidate with an open mind.
“I don’t want to rule anyone out,” she said. “We (as a board) have one employee. It is our main responsibility to the community, when you think about it, to hire that person. We want to make sure it’s a good fit.”