It doesn’t matter how much you wear “red for public ed.” It doesn’t mean you love public education. It doesn’t even mean you stand with teachers or truly care what happens with students in our schools. It’s like wearing red on Valentine’s Day as your gift to your significant other. They’d take substance over style and scarlet-colored statements any day.

If you are really concerned about the success of public education, you should care about who runs our schools. Ignoring talent while professing your commitment to public education means you are invested in the idea of public education but not the implementation of it.

And despite the sweet nothings about schools that slide so easily off folks’ tongues, the general track record when it comes to ensuring schools and districts are run by the highest quality leaders is poor.

We could look at the fact that it takes only an average of 400 votes to get elected to a Delaware school board, that many seats go uncontested, or that less than 2 percent of Delawareans vote in those elections. Or we could look no further than the limited attention being paid to the search for a new superintendent in Delaware’s largest school district.

Delaware’s media have barely covered the superintendent search for a district with a $200 million operating budget. To put that budget in comparison, the operating budget for Delaware’s largest city —Wilmington— is $162 million.  Yet, I am certain that more Delawareans are talking about whether Virginia Governor Northam should resign (he should!) than who is the best leader to ensure Red Clay School District’s 17,000 students receive a high-quality education.

More concerning than the lack of public awareness and concern about this role is how limited the search and hiring process has been. Instead of contracting with the many available firms with deep experience conducting an extensive search, the Red Clay School board ceded most of the control of the process to the obligatory education kingmaker network at University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration (IPA).

The result: For a superintendent role that carries a salary that’s close to $180,000 (for comparison a $200,000 salary puts you in the top 30 out of 500 school districts in New Jersey), Red Clay paid IPA close to $30,000 to facilitate a process that yielded just 8 applicants.

Perhaps we are to feel better that IPA also conducted a survey and 5 community conversations about the search that yielded an average of 8 participants per meeting. But essentially paying
$3750 per applicant is a hard sell for taxpayers. And even that number assumes the 8 candidates would not have otherwise applied.

IPA used a three-person panel of subject-matter experts to screen these 8 candidates but the search process definitely selected dozens of high-quality candidates out of the process before it ever began.  The job description required a:

“minimum of nine years full-time combined public education experience that must include at least five years teaching experience and a minimum of two years’ experience each as a building leader and a district-level administrator; experience in Delaware public schools required.” (emphasis added)

Had Caesar Rodney School District used such a limiting set of specifications, they would have never been able to hire Kevin Fitzgerald who was recently named as the National Association of School Superintendent’s 2018 Superintendent of the Year. He had no district experience prior to being hired as superintendent.

2016-17 Delaware Superintendent of the Year Mark Holodick (Brandywine School District) and 2018-19 Delaware Superintendent of the Year Matt Burrows (Appoquinimink School District) were also hired without district experience.

But it doesn’t seem they ever really wanted to do an extensive search. When asked where they posted the position the district’s response was as short as their list of applicants: “Red Clay website, FB, Twitter, News-Journal, Join Delaware Schools, Indeed.com.”

With this type of process and alligator arms effort, Red Clay got what it expected: two strong finalists in Hugh Broomall (Red Clay Deputy Superintendent) and Dorrell Green (Director of the Office of Innovation and Improvement at the Delaware Department of Education) who were on most insiders’ shortlists well before the district dolled out $30,000.  

What was lost is the opportunity to broaden Red Clay’s perspective by screening the dossiers of a wide range of applicants, to promote the district regionally and nationally, to build a bench of candidates who might be good for the district in the future, and to ensure the current finalists had to compete in a truly robust pool of applicants.

And we as a community lost another chance to show we really love public education by taking talent seriously.

But there’s still time to get it right.

Show up when the Red Clay board selects its next superintendent on Wednesday, run for school board, vote in the May school board elections, and push education policymakers to hold the highest bar for the leadership and governance of our schools.

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