Under the best circumstances, recruiting the right person to lead a large urban school district with more than 200,000 students, over 300 schools, and a multitude of operational and academic challenges would be difficult.
Imagine doing so during a global pandemic at a time when school buildings are outdated and toxic, when students have gone hungry, when there are shortages of bus drivers and trash collectors, and with increasingly untenable pressures on teachers and nurses. ... Well, you get the idea.
Such is the task facing the School District of Philadelphia as it enters the market for the new superintendent to succeed William R. Hite Jr., who in September announced his departure after nearly a decade in charge.
In addition to the array of crises facing the district, the process of recruiting and hiring the best candidate could be further complicated by something else — the city’s mayoral race. Hite’s tenure — an exceptionally long period of service for a big-city superintendent — will end in August 2022, as candidates are jockeying for position in the spring 2023 mayoral primary.
When Hite took the helm in 2012, he did so with the backing of the School Reform Commission, the state-controlled body that oversaw the School District for 17 years and that also provided him with a layer of insulation from the machinations and gamesmanship of city politics.
With several City Council members and civic leaders eyeing runs for the city’s top office, the race to become Philadelphia’s 100th mayor is primed to be crowded and lively; the campaign could get feisty in early 2023 — just as the new superintendent is getting settled in for their first year on the job.
Everyone who spoke with this board about the superintendent search, including current school board members, former School Reform Commission members, and other civic leaders, agreed that it would be a worst-case scenario for the district if the next superintendent were to become a topic of debate among mayoral candidates. It’s hardly a stretch to envision a scenario in which candidates try to curry the favor of various constituencies by offering snap judgments — both positive and negative — about a superintendent who, by primary day, would not yet have been on the job for a full academic year. And any viable candidate would almost certainly weigh that possibility — not to mention the other challenges facing the district — when considering the job, adding another potential hurdle to the recruiting process.
The school board is taking a series of smart, preemptive steps to address this. On Oct. 11, the board kicked off an ambitious schedule of public meetings — 18 sessions in 17 days — to solicit community feedback on what Philadelphians want in the district’s next superintendent. In December, a group of parents, teachers, students, principals, and others will take shape; that panel will conduct interviews with finalists for the job. And the clock is ticking: The school board hopes to have a superintendent chosen by April, which would allow time for Hite to introduce his successor to civic and business leaders, an important step in building trust and a broad base of support for the new superintendent that extends beyond Mayor Jim Kenney and his appointed school board.
That step is key, because while public support is vital, it should not be the deciding factor in who is eventually chosen to lead Philadelphia’s schools. Though the next superintendent is fortunate to start the job in a period of labor stability — all but one of the major union contracts has been finalized — they will have to make tough, potentially controversial decisions in the early days of the job. This is particularly true when it comes to the ongoing operational issues that have plagued the city’s aging school buildings.
For the school board, choosing the next superintendent means looking not only for a candidate who will be able to harness the academic potential of Philadelphia’s students, but also someone who has the grit to make tough decisions, the stamina to withstand pushback, and the commitment to see things through.
Though our locally controlled school board is now tasked with leading the search for Hite’s successor, the city should not lose sight of the fact that the responsibility for making the right hire falls squarely on the shoulders of the mayor.
In 2018, when Kenney assumed control of the district from the School Reform Commission, he told Philadelphians to hold him and future mayors accountable for the success or failure of our city schools. The process of appointing a new superintendent is a key part of that accountability. Leading an organization as complex as the School District, in a town as politically charged as Philadelphia, requires an extraordinary person. The futures of our city’s children depend on getting it right.