A delicate balance

Apr. 15, 2014 @ 05:06 PM

The Durham Public Schools board has given a clearer indication of a question many have pondered since Eric Becoats resigned in December – will this board choose his successor, or the board that takes office after the May 6 election?

Last week, the board agreed on an aggressive timetable that would have the current board hire the new superintendent. At least two and possibly three new members will take their seats in July, and their views could be quite different than those of members they replace.

Many had assumed, and candidates have spoken as if it were likely – that time was too short, and the new board almost unavoidably would make the decision.

As we contemplate the new timetable, it is clear the board is, as the saying goes, between a rock and a hard place.

It’s easy to conclude the new board, with which the superintendent will serve, might be better positioned to make the decision. It’s equally easy to say that this board is experienced, it already is immersed in the search process, and the sooner we have someone in place to lead the system, the better.

The school calendar plays into the decision. As board chairwoman Heidi Carter said this week, “if we want to have someone in place by the start of the school year, we need to make the selection” by late June.

There are pitfalls either way. We are optimistic that the board will reach a congenial consensus on the best choice, and boards in this situation often adopt a posture of public unanimity once a clear majority emerges. But that’s not a given -- Becoats was hired in April 2010 on a 6-1 vote.

Should even a single member dissent in a June vote this year, and two of the majority are the members not seeking re-election, avowed support of the new superintendent could be viewed as by a slender one-vote margin. It’s reasonable to think a new superintendent would not relish a significant portion of the board not being deeply invested in and perhaps even skeptical of his or her selection.

But if the decision were left to the new board, new members would face a difficult task in sizing up applicants late in the process – in the midst of the steep learning curve that always accompanies election to a major board. The search process could be further slowed.

Carter has pledged that candidates for school board will be engaged in the search process as “an individual stakeholder group.” That could minimize the possibility of a new majority being disaffected with this board’s decision.

At the end of the day, the execution of this delicate balancing act may rest on the board’s willingness to reset if, in the late innings, it simply isn’t ready to make a decision. A last-minute vote that appears excessively rushed would not help cement public confidence in the outcome.