Superintendent search narrows to five finalists Shared goals key to good match, school experts say

April 21, 1991|By Gelareh Asayesh Ann Lolordo of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this story.

He has to be a leader, but not a bully. He has to move peopl along a singular course, but only after building consensus. He has to be charismatic, without creating a cult of personality. He has to understand what we want, and want it himself.

Baltimore, along with scores of other urban centers, is looking for Mr. -- or Ms. -- Right: the school superintendent who can make this city's dreams come true.

It's a search with doubtful prospects, conducted against a backdrop of rocky marriages. The divorce rate is ever-rising; the average liaison lasts 2 1/2 years. The number of urban superintendents leaving their jobs has hit an all-time high in the past 1 1/2 years, with the number of such school districts looking for a superintendent hovering at about 20.

With education still holding center-stage on the national agenda, and frustration building over the lack of visible progress, the pressures on relationships between school boards and superintendents are intense. People demand performance, politicians' futures are at stake, and everybody's running out of patience.

All the more reason to pay detailed attention to making a good match, education consultants say.

Take notice: nobody's saying school districts should go out and find the best educator in the country. There seems to be a growing disillusionment nationally with the concept of superintendent-as-miracle-worker, the concept that some Baltimoreans say shaped the city's last choice of a schools leader.

Instead, the experts say school districts need to find the right person -- for them.

"You're miles ahead of the game if you pick the right partner because even if you have problems, you can work it through," said Floretta McKenzie, the former superintendent of the District of Columbia schools and president of the McKenzie Group, a Washington education consulting firm that conducts a lot of urban searches, including Detroit's recent search.

To make a good match, districts first need to figure out what they want and need, Ms. McKenzie and others say.

William P. Morris is president of the American Association of School Administrators, a superintendent who has conducted about 10 searches over the years for school systems looking for superintendents. Dr. Morris said he begins the process by interviewing board members to try to figure out what their district requires -- special skills in curriculum, for example, or someone who's good at community relations.

"I think there's a lot of things we can talk about that make successful marriages between husband and wife that make successful marriages between school boards and superintendents," said Dr. Morris, superintendent of the Monroe County Intermediate School District in Monroe, Michigan. "Communication. Shared goals."

Baltimore hopes to have a new superintendent in place Aug. 1, the day after Dr. Richard C. Hunter's three-year contract expires.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced he had lost confidence in Dr. Hunter in December. Board members expect to announce three to five finalists next week, then begin a round of interviews which they say will include community groups, business leaders, parents and unions.

This time around, school board members, community groups and the mayor say Baltimore has a consensus on what it wants. It wants a school system built around the principal of decentralized control, in which individual schools in cooperation with their communities determine how to make learning happen and how to use their resources. This project, called "restructuring", is supposed to start on a limited basis this fall.

The emphasis on restructuring had not emerged when the city went shopping for a new schools superintendent three years ago, eventually settling on Dr. Hunter after a nationwide search. Dr. Hunter lost the support of the mayor in part because Mr. Schmoke felt Dr. Hunter did not follow through on this push toward decentralization.

"The one thing that those who are in the process say now they are doing, that wasn't done when Hunter came in, was to identify what Baltimore as Baltimore wanted for its school system," says Jo Ann Robinson, a parent who is active in the League of Women Voters' education committee. "I think maybe there was too much emphasis placed on the idea that every leader has the right to jTC expect to put his stamp or her stamp on the system."

This time around, school board members say they are looking for someone to carry out existing programs. They have expressed interest in regional candidates -- wary of educators who come to the city with a national reputation but little familiarity with the community.

That leaning is expressed in the list of five finalists for the position, which includes only two educators without links to this region. Others are from Prince George's County, the District of Columbia and Baltimore County. But even when a school system has developed a general profile of the right superintendent, the path is littered with pitfalls.

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