School & District Management

Schools Chief Search Off Schedule in Boston

By Catherine Gewertz — July 19, 2006 7 min read
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The closely watched search for a new superintendent in Boston has taken such a rocky turn that the search committee’s revised timeline now envisions January as the starting time for the new schools chief.

Four highly regarded educators said they were not interested in the post after the city’s leading newspaper identified them as top candidates. The events further delayed a decision the Boston School Committee had hoped to make by the time Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant departed on June 30.

Among the wounded in the dust-up this month: a school committee chairwoman and community activists who are spitting mad that names of possible candidates were published during a confidential stage of the process; a newspaper under attack for doing what it considered its civic duty; and a handful of educators who had to scramble to respond publicly to what they thought would be a private matter.

That the Boston search would run aground is unexpected, given the district’s efforts to smooth the leadership transition. Mr. Payzant announced plans to retire a year ago. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation paid for studies on his tenure to inform the work of the district’s next leader. (“Plenty of Advice Awaits Boston Schools’ Next Leader,” July 12, 2006.)

Despite that care in laying the groundwork for the city’s first new schools leader in more than 10 years, Boston’s search was stalled by a clash between confidentiality and public accountability that has produced similar difficulties elsewhere.

In the past decade, said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, districts increasingly have bowed to candidates’ demands for confidentiality because good leaders are hard to find, and school boards don’t want to risk losing top choices by identifying them publicly early on.

Boards are under intense pressure to involve the public in choosing a superintendent, yet have to guard against “blowing up the process” by identifying candidates, observed Donald R. McAdams, who studies and trains school boards as the executive director of the Center for the Reform of School Systems, based in Houston.

‘Damage Control’

As of this month, only one of the five people The Boston Globe named as top contenders for the post—Nancy J. McGinley, the chief academic officer of the Charleston County, S.C., schools—remained in the running.

Deborah A. Sims, a top schools administrator in San Francisco, and Mary Grassa O’Neill, the managing director of the principals’ training program at Harvard University, declined to be considered further. Two others—Arlene Ackerman, the former superintendent in San Francisco, and Manuel J. Rivera, the superintendent in Rochester, N.Y.—said they hadn’t sought the job to begin with.

District officials say they are still talking with additional candidates. The district’s search committee had planned to select a group of finalists who would then go through public interviews before the school committee made its decision. Elizabeth Reilinger, the committee’s chairwoman, said that stage had not yet been reached when the Globe reported on June 27 that the search had been “narrowed” to five candidates, and named them.

By the next day, Ms. Ackerman had declared her noncandidacy. On July 1, the newspaper reported the same about Mr. Rivera and said the search “appears to be in limbo.” By July 11, only Ms. McGinley remained.

Ms. Ackerman and Mr. Rivera said in interviews with Education Week that they had agreed to talk to Boston officials, and had made it clear they did not seek the superintendent’s chair. Public disclosure of their talks, they said, forced them to launch a barrage of e-mails and phone calls to dispel any suspicion they might leave a current job (in Mr. Rivera’s case) or back out of commitments to new ones (in Ms. Ackerman’s case, to Teachers College, Columbia University and the Broad Foundation).

“I spent the next 48 hours doing damage control,” Mr. Rivera said. “I had to put this fire out.”

Ms. Sims said she withdrew because she concluded that the search would have to be prolonged, and that she did not wish to be involved. Asked whether disclosure of her name had influenced her decision, she said: “It’s obvious the process hasn’t moved as anyone would have wanted.”

Ms. O’Neill declined to discuss whether public disclosure of her name had affected her decision. She said only that she had decided not to pursue the job because she is happy at Harvard.

Ms. McGinley, the Charleston County school official, said that having her name disclosed had caused her stress, but that she remains an active candidate.

‘Press Irresponsibility’

Mr. Casserly of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools called what happened in Boston “another example of press irresponsibility.”

The Boston Globe and other press outlets know what the result of publishing this kind of information is, and insist on doing it anyway,” he said, “then turn around and attempt to describe the search process as being in chaos, but it’s chaos they themselves created.”

Mary Jane Wilkinson, the Globe’s managing editor for newsroom administration, said the paper stands by its stories. It has received no requests for retractions or corrections about them, she noted.

“The superintendent is one of the most important officials in Boston, so the names of those under consideration for the job are a matter of legitimate interest to the public,” she said. The search committee was already “committed to a public process,” and the newspaper believed it to be “just days away” from disclosing the finalists, Ms. Wilkinson said.

Ms. Reilinger, the school committee chairwoman, said it was “absolutely untrue” that the search committee, which she co-chairs, was about to release a list of finalists. The group “had not completed its due diligence around individuals of interest,” she said, and the newspaper’s stories “resulted in the chaos that has ensued.”

District and community leaders still hope to preserve the public interview process for finalists, seeing it as key to community involvement in the decision. But they say they would have to reconsider if it became clear that they would lose strong candidates by doing so.

“At this stage, we all need to give this some thought,” said Jacqueline Rivers, who oversees a company that provides training for mathematics teachers and who has worked to ensure community input into the search.

In the past several years, a number of superintendent searches have floundered over the public disclosure of candidates’ names.

Elfreda W. Massie, a top contender for the job in Montgomery County, Md., in 1999, withdrew after news-media disclosure of her financial problems. John Thompson withdrew his candidacy for the superintendency in the District of Columbia in 2004 when his name became public. The finalist for the post in Ysleta, Texas, in 2002, Hector Montenegro, withdrew after an El Paso newspaper published his name, but patched things up with the school board and became superintendent. The school board member who leaked his name to the media was later censured.

Treading Lightly

The delicate dance between candidates and search firms also complicates the balance between confidentiality and public involvement, Mr. McAdams said. Since the companies’ incentive is to deliver a good selection of strong candidates to their clients, it is common practice for them to persuade strong leaders to consider job openings even though they insist they are not interested, he said.

“It’s just like a young man proposing to his sweetheart,” Mr. McAdams said. “No doesn’t always mean no. But if her body language isn’t definitive, he might think there is an opening to try again.”

And for many candidates, Mr. McAdams said, there is an incentive to play down how interested they are in the job, both to escape humiliation if they don’t get it, and to avoid burning bridges back home.

The complex dynamics of the search can lend themselves to differences of opinion about what the word “candidate” means, and who does or does not fit that description at any given moment.

“In every major urban-superintendent search, many of the leading individuals in the field who are consulted about the opportunity can never be accurately described as ‘candidates’ or ‘applicants,’ ” Edward K. Hamilton, the chairman of Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler, the Carmel, Calif.-based firm that is helping identify candidates for the Boston superintendency, said in an e-mail.

Many of those consulted are not actively seeking new jobs and do not declare their candidacy, he said, but still might be willing to talk with a search committee, or—as Mr. Rivera said he was doing—advise them on their search.

“It is perfectly true that such individuals have not agreed to become candidates and have made that very clear from the outset, but there is nothing to prevent a search committee from trying to persuade them to become candidates if the committee is so inclined,” Mr. Hamilton said.

A version of this article appeared in the July 26, 2006 edition of Education Week as Despite Careful Planning, Boston Struggles to Find New Leader


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