Don’t rush school search

The Fuller Building, the Durham Public Schools Administration Building.
The Fuller Building, the Durham Public Schools Administration Building.

Durham Public Schools will kick off the first of its “kitchen-table conversations,” to solicit community input on the next superintendent, Wednesday, May 31, at 7 p.m. at the Hayti Heritage Center. Two more are planned, and the system has posted an online survey to let residents weigh in with the qualities they feel are most important in the new superintendent.

The outreach to the community is an important step in the process of selecting a successor to Bert L’Homme, will retire in early August — although he’s offered to stay on a month longer if that will help with the transition.

Hoping to have someone in place by early November, the school board has established an aggressive timeline for the superintendent search. What we hope they will hear from members of the community over the next few weeks, and what we fervently believe, is that too much haste may not be a good thing.

This is a critical decision for the board. The person it selects to succeed L’Homme will be the fourth superintendent hired since Ann Denlinger stepped down 11 years ago. While the system has been making progress in lifting educational attainment and maintaining public support, progress has been slow, not helped by the turnover rate at the top spot.

What we need, and what it is not readily apparent will happen in the process, especially as the timetable is compressed, is a vigorous search for a leader who will dig in, and continue and accelerate the gains of recent years. Ideally, our new superintendent will have a track record of turning around an under-performing system, a commitment to developing instructional leadership at every school and the intent to commit several years to the transformation of the system.

Needless to say, the superintendent will need superb public relations skills to build support, negotiate with county commissioners who control local funding to the schools and have been restive in recent years with the district performance, and navigate the sometimes complex landscape of local advocacy groups and community activists.

The system has contracted again with the N.C. School Boards Association to manage the search, advertising for candidates and identifying potential finalists for the position. We hope, though, the board will go beyond merely relying on the association’s efforts.

Allison Schafer, legal counsel and director of policy for the NCSBA, certainly opened the door for board involvement in recruitment. “We always invite board members” to suggest candidates, she said last week. It would behoove the system’s future for board members to actively identify strong candidates, the best of whom might not apply without encouragement, and point the association toward them.

And if the process takes longer than the timetable the board has laid out, the future of our schools is worth extending the timetable.