Tony B. Watlington Sr. didn’t have to show up the day the teachers’ union gave out awards to educators, cafeteria workers, and students, but he did anyway, shaking hands and offering congratulations.
That was in North Carolina, a right-to-work state where unions have no bargaining power, much less the clout they hold in Philadelphia. But Watlington made teachers a promise when he arrived at the Rowan-Salisbury School District, and then he showed them he meant it.
“He made it evident that he wanted to work with teachers and the union, which was amazing in North Carolina,” said Rena Taylor, teachers’ union president in the school system of 20,000. “He’s a showstopper.”
Now Watlington will leave the South to become Philadelphia’s new superintendent, announced Friday by the school board to take over from William R. Hite Jr. one of the nation’s largest school systems, managing 216 schools, 115,000 students, and a $3.9 billion budget. He will be paid $340,000 annually and signed a five-year contract that requires him to live in the city.
Things felt unstable in the Rowan-Salisbury system when Watlington arrived in early 2021; his predecessor had left unexpectedly. But Watlington established a “strong, beautiful vision,” Taylor said, and built systems to work toward it.
“This a huge loss for us — Dr. Watlington has been amazing to work for,” said Taylor. “Our school board is pretty conservative, and he’s able to be a mediator for all voices. I really haven’t heard anything negative about him.”
Watlington has spent his entire career in North Carolina, briefly in Rowan-Salisbury and for decades in the much larger Guilford County school system. Both districts have struggled with elevated poverty rates and incidences of violence and racial conflict.
The Rev. Mark Tyler, senior pastor at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, district parent, and member of the advisory panel that helped cull superintendent candidates, said Watlington won’t have trouble coming in and making friends: He’s warm and genial. (The advisory panel recommended a group of candidates to the school board but had no say in its final pick.)
“The real challenge will be, can he manage doing more with less?” said Tyler. “This is going to be the first time he will be challenged with a budget that doesn’t give you what you need.”
Tyler, not a native Philadelphian himself, said he “has a concern for anybody coming into Philadelphia who’s not from Philadelphia.” Still, he hopes Watlington keeps his small-town openness, even when the arrows undoubtedly come his way.
“Philadelphia is a different level of criticism. I hope he has a strong constitution,” said Tyler. “It’s going to be his job to negotiate our desire for change and our kicking and screaming because things are changing.”
As Mayor Jim Kenney’s chief education officer, Otis Hackney had a bird’s-eye view of the superintendent candidates. Watlington was rock solid from his first contact with the advisory committee, Hackney said — steady, with concrete answers to tough questions.
“He gives strong educator vibes,” said Hackney, the former principal of South Philadelphia High. “Every time I’ve heard him speak, he sounds like a history teacher. He thinks and analyzes situations with a historian’s lens.”
Even Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said Watlington was the right pick.
“Dr. Watlington showed a seemingly very sincere commitment to working in a truly collaborative and transparent fashion,” Jordan said in a statement. “He is hailed, in every forum I have seen, as an excellent educator. Further, he appears earnest in his commitment to working as partners with the PFT and other district unions.”
And while Robin Cooper, the president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, the district’s principals’ union, acknowledged moving from a small district will mean a steep learning curve for Watlington, she’s choosing to remain optimistic.
“He deserves an opportunity to see what he’s able to do,” said Cooper, who has clashed with Hite. “Just because he hasn’t run a district this large doesn’t mean he can’t run a district this large. The one who was well-versed in the large district didn’t do well. He ignored the stakeholders.”
City Councilmember Helen Gym agreed that Watlington was the best of the field of three finalists but indicated he has a monumental task list in front of him given “a crisis of faith in our public school system.”
“The district is projecting the largest enrollment drop we have seen in years — and we need a superintendent who will work tirelessly to prove those projections wrong,” Gym said in a statement. “Teachers are not only leaving this system but the profession. And we have far too many young people who are disengaged or have felt pushed out of schools — particularly in neighborhoods hardest hit by poverty, gun violence, the pandemic, and disinvestment. This cannot continue.”
Lisa Haver, a retired district teacher and a founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, wants to believe that Watlington can succeed. But the search process that identified him, which advanced no Philadelphians and no women as finalists, disappointed her group and others in the city.
Watlington, though, “did seem to be the person who connected more with people, and that’s an important thing,” Haver said. “But we have to know whether Dr. Watlington’s going to do things differently. Are we just going do to the same things, with standardized tests and outsourcing? Is he really going to be able to turn things around?”
Teacher Ashante Carr, who teaches fifth- and sixth-grade students English at Waring Elementary in Fairmount, was relieved when she heard Watlington was the next schools chief.
“Out of the three, he seems the most relatable,” said Carr. She likes that Watlington kept his teacher’s license current. “That shows me that he cares. Hopefully, he just takes the time to get to know the schools, the staff, and the climate.”
Priscilla Lo, a district parent, said she is “hoping [Watlington] will make radical positive changes in Philly as that is what we need. But from his tenure, I am just not seeing that track record.” Still, she said, she will keep an open mind.
Watlington convinced school board president Joyce Wilkerson and the other members of the board of his readiness for the task, despite a lack of experience leading districts like Philadelphia’s.
“Basic systems are scalable,” Wilkerson said. “Good teaching is good teaching, whether you’re teaching 10 kids or a lot more than 10. He has the tools needed to really put in place the changes that have to happen to have kids excelling.”
News researcher Ryan W. Briggs contributed to this article.