OK, I'LL BE HONEST. When I opened my daughter's backpack last week and found an invitation to parents to attend a forum to discuss what we're looking for from the next Philadelphia School District CEO, my reaction was snide.

"Gee, if he could bring a money tree to the job, something that grows about $80 million in Benjamins, that would be good," I snorted, thinking of the budget shortfall that has forced the elimination of nonteaching assistants, killed arts programs, and put on hold projects that had made our mouths water.

And when my home phone rang later that night with a robo-call from School Reform Commission chairwoman Sandra Dungee Glenn, reiterating the invitation to one of the 11 community forums, I actually talked back to the recorded voice.

"You're asking me what we need in a new CEO?" I asked robo-Sandra. "How should I know? I have no clue about pedagogy or budgets. You know what our kids need. Why don't you just find the best person to give it to us?"

So I wasn't in the most optimistic mood when I attended yesterday's forum at school district headquarters. Three hours later, I felt less snippy - mostly because it's hard to spend time with two dozen committed parents and citizens and not feel glad to have met them.

Still, I left feeling frustrated, since what we said we want is what we've been saying we want ever since the state took over our schools.

Smaller class sizes. Well-trained teachers, able to meet diverse needs of kids from varied backgrounds. A safe school climate. A strong special-ed curriculum, bilingual tutoring, and collegial relationships between teachers and administrators. Involved parents.

Find a leader who can figure out how to give us that, while squeezing more money out of Harrisburg, and the CEO can be a sullen Martian, for all I care.

I'll give Dungee Glenn points for wanting to include parents in the CEO hire (even if what we say ends up having no impact on the SRC's final selection).

The commission got pounded last school year for blindsiding parents with budget cuts, so the SRC is clearly trying to do a better job of being responsive.

Just last week, for example, the Daily News revealed that some district classrooms are so crowded that students are forced to sit on radiators and floors. Within two days, the SRC had responded by setting up a hotline for parents to report overcrowding elsewhere.

The swift response was gratifying, and seems typical of Dungee Glenn, who's warmly regarded by district parents' groups.

But I can't help worrying that this move - asking what we'd like from our next CEO - could backfire on us.

When I consulted Erin Horvat about this, she shared my mistrust.

"I don't get it," said Horvat, a prof in Temple's urban-education program and chair of its educational leadership and policy studies.

Horvat's daughter attends a Philly public school, so she got the invites also. Given that she's one of the most passionate public-school advocates I've ever met, her suspicions are worth hearing out.

"This just seems disingenuous," Horvat told me yesterday. "This is a School Reform Commission that has had no transparency about the budget process, that has shut parents out of almost every decision that has affected our kids, and now they want us to comment on what we want in a CEO? This is what they start with?

"It seems political, a way to make parents feel like they have a say, when the SRC is going to hire who they want, anyway. It seems like a setup. If the new CEO doesn't work out, they can say, 'Hey, this is what you said you wanted. Don't blame us.' "

Obviously, we'll probably never know if anything said at these 11 community forums was valued until we have a new CEO (the SRC plans to select one by the end of the year). Meantime, a search-advisory committee is being formed, said Charles Taylor, of the Hollins Group, the executive-recruitment firm that's handling the CEO search, and committee members will make recommendations to the SRC, which will have the final say.

The advisory committee will include parent members. If you'd like to find out how to be one of them, send an inquiry to: ceosearch@phila.k12.pa.us

And if you know someone with a money tree who's looking for a CEO job, forward the e-mail address to him, will ya? *

E-mail: polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

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