From the moment I published the names of the three finalists for the DeKalb school chief job on Tuesday, the e-mails began: “Is this the best we can do?” “Can you find out if other candidates turned DeKalb down and this is what we were stuck with?” “None of these three is qualified. We ought to start over.”
On the other hand, I have also heard many comparisons to famous winning coaches who came to big schools from smaller ones and turned around losing athletic programs.
The fact is that all three candidates do come from much smaller systems. However, that doesn’t mean they have small ideas or that their leadership skills cannot transfer to a system 10 times greater in enrollment.
I have seen city managers, newspaper editors and school superintendents with seemingly ideal credentials fail, and I have seen people with unremarkable backgrounds succeed so I don’t think we can tell much from a curriculum vitae.
The candidates meet the public tonight — which is a very unusual event. Shouldn’t we at least wait until we hear them speak before dismissing them as too green for the DeKalb leadership post?
Here is an AJC story about the concerns over the qualifications of Lillie Cox, Arthur Culver and Gloria Davis (No favoritism in listing them. I went with alphabetical.):
State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, who chairs a legislative committee tasked with helping the school system keep its accreditation, is skeptical about the qualifications of the finalists.
“The first thing that jumped out at me is that all three of them come from small systems, minuscule in comparison,” Jones said. “What was the board thinking? Are these the best who applied?”
The finalists announced earlier this week are: Gloria Davis of Decatur (Ill.) Public Schools with 8,700 students; Arthur R. Culver of Champaign (Ill.) Community School District No. 4 with 8,900 students; and Lillie M. Cox of Hickory (N.C.) Public Schools with less than 5,000 students.
“We need someone with experience running one of the largest school systems in the country,” Jones said. “They have to hit the ground running. With everything we’re facing, there’s no time for on-the-job training.”
But Tom Bowen, chairman of the DeKalb school board, said district size doesn’t matter.
“We were looking for people with proven leadership ability, a track record of improving academic achievement and raw talent,” Bowen said. “We think that’s what we have here.”
Bowen said more than 50 applicants were screened for the job and several of them came from school districts at or near the size of DeKalb’s.
“We want proven success, not a magic number,” Bowen said.
A meeting is scheduled for Thursday night at which the three finalists will be questioned in a public forum. After that, Bowen said that the board expects to make its decision in several weeks.
Lynn Deutsch, who has two children in DeKalb’s school system, said she plans to be at the meeting. She said she’s concerned about the small districts the finalists are drawn from.
“I’m going to the meeting with an open mind,” Deutsch said. “But I’ve got to say that I’m concerned about the finalists. I mean, are their management skills really transferable from such small districts? Have they delved into a situation where every decision can be political? Have any of them ever gotten a district out of anything like the troubles we’re seeing?”
David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, said he’s been hearing nonstop from members who say they, too, are skeptical about the qualifications of the candidates.
“We have a lot of problems here and I’m frankly surprised by the [board's] choices,” Schutten said. “There’s a lot to do and not a lot of time for someone to get up to speed. We have to get [students'] scores up. … And, frankly, there’s a big morale problem with the staff.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog