After nearly a decade as superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, William R. Hite Jr. will depart that role at the end of the academic year.
Like many of his predecessors, Hite’s tenure was filled with a series of crises. During the last year alone, the district has faced substantive criticism over its strategy for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in classrooms, the physical condition of many buildings, a school bus driver shortage, changes to school start times, modifications to the school calendar, concerns about adequate nursing coverage, uncollected trash in schoolyards, and an incident where children went hungry for an entire school day.
Episodes like those have only served to erode the sense of trust between top district leaders and parents, educators, and support staff. During a meeting with this board in August, Board of Education President Joyce Wilkerson said that rebuilding those relationships was “a work in progress.”
While Hite has, in many ways, accomplished the goals that the School Reform Commission had set out for him, the district’s failures on so many other fronts during his tenure made it difficult for him to move his agenda forward.
For those with the ultimate responsibility of selecting the new superintendent, Mayor Jim Kenney and members of the Board of Education, this process should itself be an exercise in rebuilding trust. A plan outlined by district officials Tuesday shows promise — school board vice president Leticia Egea-Hinton committed to holding 17 community meetings, and convening an advisory panel of 11 members, which will include the voices of parents, teachers, students, principals, and organized labor.
But the city has promised transparency with regard to schools in the past and failed to deliver.
While many cheered the return of city control over public schools in 2018, Kenney faced criticism because past school board selections have taken place behind closed doors. Other complaints have persisted, too: Parents and activists are so frustrated by constraints on their ability to speak at board meetings that a lawsuit has been filed, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers expressed its dismay when the union’s environmental expert was forced out of Frankford High School while investigating reports of mold.
As the city begins a national search for candidates, it’s up to Kenney and the school board to consider the successes and challenges of Hite’s tenure, along with the question of how much they want to put on the plate of one official.
When Hite was hired, the district was in a severe financial crisis and teachers and staff were forced to slash budgets. Today, the district has an A+ rating from Fitch and last month it reached a contract agreement with the teachers’ union that included three years of raises. While Hite was largely able to turn around the district’s finances, an achievement that gives his successor more fiscal flexibility, he struggled with some of the basic operational tasks that matter most to parents and teachers.
Having a good credit rating and a sturdy bank account might only make such issues as perilous building conditions, a dearth of day-to-day resources, and uncollected trash seem even more incomprehensible. Hite’s supporters can point to non-budgetary successes like the early literacy program, but ultimately students need the district to deliver on the basics — food, reliable transportation, and safe classrooms — in order to succeed.
Offloading some of the superintendent’s responsibilities onto other officials could be one way to ensure the kind of accountability and operational excellence that Philadelphia’s students deserve. Appointing specialized deputy or assistant superintendents — an infrastructure the district had until 2012 — could be one way to ensure that the enormous list of tasks that are part of the superintendent’s portfolio gets done.
When Kenney took control of Philadelphia’s schools, he told parents: “You can hold me, and future mayors, accountable for the success or failure of our schools. The buck will stop with us.” Now, with the chance to pick a superintendent without state input for the first time in more than 20 years, the mayor has a responsibility to make good on that pledge.