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Letter to the Editor

The search for a new superintendent must be open and inclusive, school board candidate says

The next Fairfax County School Board will have to hit the ground running in January on the search for a new superintendent.

Getting a true sense of the public’s wishes in such a vast county on such an important question will take many months.  I recommend former School Board member Kristen Amundsen’s recent letter in the Washington Post as a primer on how to organize the search. 

The first step should be a listening tour throughout the community, asking what qualities people hope for in a new superintendent.  As I talk to voters, parents, teachers and students in the Hunter Mill community, it is clear that many people have already started thinking about it.  The superintendent of a large, high-achieving school district like ours will have to be many things to many people, but certain themes are emerging in my conversations.

Of course, any candidate must show a proven ability to manage a large, successful suburban school system, with 177,000 students, over 20,000 employees and a $2.2 billion budget.  Beyond that, what I hear most often is that the new superintendent must have a reputation for openness and respectful collaboration with all stakeholders.  Also important to many is a proven strength as an advocate for public education in the community, with the ability to build valuable partnerships for our schools.

 The educators I talk to want the new superintendent to have some classroom teaching experience, and I agree.  The practitioner’s perspective is too often overlooked in the search for education leaders.  The history of education policy is littered with ideas that sounded good at the policy table but made no sense in the classroom.  A leader with teaching experience will know how important it is to seek teacher input early and often.

 Another suggestion I hear is that we should look for someone who reflects the great diversity of our county.  Proponents of the arts and foreign language instruction want to know that the new superintendent understands the educational value of those programs.  In a county where 25% of our families are low-income, any new superintendent must have proven success in advancing the achievement of students in poverty.  Our persistent minority student achievement gaps deserve a leader who has demonstrated success in closing those gaps elsewhere.

Many more ideas are surfacing in my conversations.  One of my favorite things about Patch is that it is interactive.  I hope readers will weigh in with their own thoughts!

After months of listening, the School Board should develop search criteria based on community input.  The task of narrowing the field to a handful of candidates must be more confidential, of course, because some candidates will not want their communities to know they are considering a new job.  But that effort certainly should include some members of the community with expertise in education leadership. 

Once a field of candidates has been chosen, the hiring process should open up again to public scrutiny and input.  Interested citizens, including teachers, students and parents, should have ample opportunities to meet and question the candidates, and make their preferences known.

I am a firm believer in the power of good process.  When we protect any process - by making it inclusive, respectful and empowering -  we can trust the outcome.  That will certainly be true of the search for a new superintendent for Fairfax County Public Schools.

Pat Hynes

Candidate for Fairfax County School Board

Hunter Mill District

Richard Holmquist October 06, 2011 at 06:44 PM
I'm sorry, which issue group is that? GUTS -- Gonna Upset Teachers and Students?? I'm with you, KB, but you get my point. Superintendents (and SB members) don't last long when they buck the true popular opinion. It would be nice to find that person, or to find one who is adept at communicating those positions to the public.
Therese Tuley October 06, 2011 at 08:27 PM
Good point and food for thought for all of us. Data-driven polices are key.
JoAnne Norton October 07, 2011 at 12:56 AM
Priorities are another aspect. We want all of the above mentioned points but how will the new board and the new superintendernt prioritize? In 2025 what is our dropout rate going to be and how many students will speak another language? Will students in the upper ten per cent in achievement all be fluent in another language and the minority achievement gap still be there? Where will the money go?
KB October 08, 2011 at 02:48 AM
Richard - you hit the nail on the head with "one who is adept at communicating these positions to the public" (although, you first have to actually KNOW what those positions are). The trouble with public opinion lies in the second word..."opinion" - there is no room for that in educating children. We need a superintendent and School Board willing and able to select and implement policies/practices that maximize learning for EVERY student - and subsequently communicate (to parents and the community) the research and reasoning behind them. Furthermore, teachers should be an integral part of the selection and implementation process - and the student voice should certainly not be neglected. After all, these two "stakeholders" are the only ones who experience the day-to-day manifestations of such decisions. While I applaud and support parent involvement, such as advocating for later start times and a more reasonable/just discipline system, there are some decisions that simply need to be left to the experts. While I may be fairly informed about our laws and legal system, I doubt anyone would want me to represent them in a courtroom. Do you get my point?
Pat Hynes October 16, 2011 at 03:10 PM
Thank you all! I've been checking in and it looks like the conversation has run its course here for now, though it will certainly continue in the community. Very thoughtful responses. I agree that areas of expertise should be respected. We must be sure to balance every conversation so that teachers, parents, students and other education experts are all empowered to do what they do best. Keep in touch at hynesforschoolboard@gmail.com!

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