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SRC begins hunt for superintendent

With its membership finally complete, it's good to see the Philadelphia School Reform Commission begin to map out how it plans to choose a new superintendent.

Chairman Pedro Ramos seems to understand the urgency. The five-member commission began preliminary talks about the search Friday, which was the same day that newly confirmed member Feather Houstoun attended her first SRC meeting.

It would have been even more encouraging had Ramos announced a timeline and the likely criteria for replacing former schools CEO Arlene Ackerman. At this pace, it appears that the district won't have a new superintendent before the start of the 2012-13 school year.

In many respects, sooner would be better. With an interim superintendent in charge, the district finds itself in a type of limbo where past policies remain the rule but no one really knows for how long. The situation necessarily stifles innovation. Bold strokes can't be made when they are subject to being pushed back later.

Leroy D. Nunery II has been acting superintendent since Ackerman left abruptly in August after too many public clashes with the SRC. Nunery, who wants the job permanently, has done a good job steadying the ship following Ackerman's departure. But the SRC must carefully weigh whether Nunery was too close to the Ackerman administration to represent real change.

A national search clearly seems warranted. The newly retooled SRC must hire the right leader to tackle the many challenges facing the 155,000-student district, which has been plagued for years by poor test scores, a high dropout rate, and persistent violence.

Some fundamental qualities are needed in the next superintendent to avoid the pitfalls that derailed Ackerman. First and foremost, he or she must be able to navigate the choppy political waters in Philadelphia, and Harrisburg, which hold the purse strings that fund the district.

The next CEO must work cooperatively with the SRC, which must provide oversight without becoming a rubber stamp. The new chief should have a proven record in an urban system and be able to win the support of both teachers and administrators.

Ackerman did some things right, and the next superintendent should build upon successful programs, such as the Renaissance Schools. With its makeover, the SRC is in better position to improve city schools. But choosing a new superintendent will be its biggest test.