The search for a new leader at the School District of Philadelphia is now officially underway, with the goal of selecting one by May. And it's already clear that the process is about more than just finding the right candidate.
Observers call it a critical test for the School Reform Commission itself. It's a chance for that body to persuade everyone that it can steer the District through its current troubles and provide a community-supported framework in which the next leader can succeed.
"Philadelphia's got to show that somebody can come there, and be successful, and be given the room and the cover to do what has to be done," said Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
"We need the SRC to be the keeper of the plan," said Susan Gobreski, director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania. "Superintendents come and go, but we need the governing board to own its mission, and own the execution of the mission."
"So much of this process is about restoring the public's faith and trust," said Marc Mannella, founder of KIPP Philadelphia Charter School. "How you get [a candidate] to say 'yes' is if you have an SRC that knows how to operate, that knows how to build consensus."
SRC members say they're ready for the challenge. They plan to post an initial job description by early February, but also promise that the feedback gathered at subsequent public meetings will shape their final plan for the next leader.
"We have to show resolve and forward motion on changes that are going to stabilize the District … to show that we are cohesive, transparent, [and] open-minded," said Feather Houstoun, the newest SRC member. "If we can turn over to a new superintendent a five-year plan with the building blocks of the administrative and financial apparatus [in place], then that person can think about education."
The SRC has already shared some initial priorities that shed light on its vision of the task ahead.
The new leader does not have to be a traditional educator or former superintendent, SRC members say. The essential characteristics: a team-builder with experience in large organizations who will embrace the so-called "diverse provider" model, grant more autonomy to District schools, and push for academic success in schools of all types.
"We don't expect to find in one person everything we want," said SRC chairman Pedro Ramos. "It necessarily requires somebody who has the skill and track record of building good teams … getting people to do the things you need them to do, even when you don't have the authority to tell them to do it."
Ramos said that if the next superintendent is not an educator, he'd expect that person to bring in a strong academic leader. "We don't want the person who's going to try to wing it," he said.
Improving relations between the District and its charters ranks among the SRC's top priorities. SRC members note in a list of key criteria that "the emergence of diverse education providers … require[s] the District to rethink its vision and outlook."
KIPP's Mannella is one who welcomes this attitude. "That matters a lot to us [charter operators] – the notion that there's room for all of us in this tent that is public education. That's not been said out loud by the School District of Philadelphia in recent years, that I remember," he said. "It's a post-oppositional kind of world."
And as for District schools, the SRC expects the next superintendent to grant them greater autonomy, in part out of necessity. As budget cuts shrink the size and capacity of the central office, Houstoun said, principals will be able to "make some decisions on their own." She said the new superintendent should be able to tell principals: "'Here's your budget, we think we can protect it this year. You make decisions and you don't have to come back to us – just go and do good.' I'm vastly oversimplifying … but I think that's really the nature of this."
Not everyone is happy with the SRC's emerging vision. At a contentious SRC meeting in January, George Ricchezza, head of Local 32BJ District 1201, lamented the fact that his union, representing building engineers and other blue-collar workers, had yet to be consulted in the search process.
"Not one member of this local has been involved, nor any of the other unions here," said Ricchezza, who sat on a 44-member community advisory board that assisted in the last superintendent search, and whose members recently received layoff notices and saw scheduled raises cancelled. "We have a wealth of knowledge. They should tap into that. But unfortunately it's going in the opposite direction.
"It's changing, the School District, and we understand that," Ricchezza said. "But I believe it's moving towards privatization [and] charter schools, and what they're trying to do is eliminate hard-working unionized workers in Philadelphia."
Longtime activist Venard Johnson echoed the point: "I think we're adopting the old Edison model they wanted eight years ago – scale the District down, make it a pass-through for money, and create a charter school system," he told the SRC.
And some fear that the important decisions have already been made. "My opinion is that they're not looking for someone education-based – they're looking for someone who can keep our budget in line," said Gloria Thomas, mother of a District student and a member of the group Parent Power, whose founder, Sylvia Simms, will advise the search committee. "I think we need someone education-based who also knows how to balance the checkbook."
Seeking savvy leader to start ASAP
The SRC hopes to have a new superintendent in place by July to take over from recently appointed Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen.
Members say they won't "settle" for an inadequate candidate. They promise that their nine-member search committee (see box) will listen carefully to the community and that the final job description will reflect the city's aspirations for its public schools.
But they also agree that the timetable is ambitious, especially given the District's dire organizational and financial straits. There is no disagreement that the next leader will need a special skill set to handle a monumental task.
"The leader of a big-city school system is as much a political figure as a manager," said Petrilli. A schools chief with a purely corporate background (like the ill-fated Cathy Black, who lasted only three months in New York City) may well be unprepared for the job's diplomatic demands, Petrilli said. He added that a mix of public and private-sector experience is probably what's needed. "They have to work with the SRC, but also the governor and the mayor. You want someone with a pretty good political ear," he said.
The challenge now for the SRC, said Carol Fixman of the Philadelphia Education Fund, is to lay the stable foundation needed to attract a good candidate, while leaving room for the next leader to lead.
"Many have suggested that we don't need a superhero – maybe not," she said. "But I do think we need someone who can build a team. … We want the next superintendent to build on strengths, and not simply create a tabula rasaand start over again. We've seen that happen too many times."
The search committee
The committee members are:
School Reform Commissioners Pedro Ramos, Lorene Cary, Joseph Dworetzky, Feather Houstoun, and Wendell Pritchett. Pritchett will chair the search team.
Executive advisors Lori Shorr, the city's chief education officer, and Ed Williams, the District's former chief academic officer.
Fred Ginyard of Youth United for Change.
Rob Wonderling of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.
Kenneth Kring of Korn/Ferry International, an executive search firm (non-voting member).
Sylvia Simms of Parent Power was named an advisor to the committee.