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An unsettled CEO search

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

With the School Reform Commission still deliberating two weeks after receiving feedback from a divided advisory committee, there seem to be more questions than answers about the search for a new School District CEO.

Some prominent Philadelphians are calling for the SRC to officially reopen its search.

“They should go back and see who else is out there,” said Phil Goldsmith, who was interim CEO of the District in 2000, between the tenures of David Hornbeck and Paul Vallas. “They should be more proactive and try to identify people who may have said no the first time and do a marketing campaign to interest them.”

“I think they need to re-advertise and re-search and find someone who has an education and a business background – and experience teaching in the classroom,” said State Representative Jewell Williams, who chairs Philadelphia’s Harrisburg delegation. Williams, a member of the search advisory committee, said he supports holding out for a candidate who “has the whole package.”

Three months of serious searching yielded three finalists, none of whom were current school district leaders and only one of whom had the job experience that the SRC itself stipulated. That candidate is former San Francisco and Washington, DC superintendent Arlene Ackerman, now teaching at Columbia University.

After interviewing with a 36-member citizen’s advisory committee on January 23, one of the finalists, Temple education dean Kent McGuire, dropped out. The other remaining finalist is Leroy Nunery, a former University of Pennsylvania administrator and more recently an official at Edison Schools Inc. He falls far short of the desired 10 years of experience in urban schools – one of the key criteria specified by the SRC when it began the search.

Since the finalists met with the committee, the District’s acting Chief Academic Officer Cassandra Jones has applied for the job. But she has not been interviewed by the advisory group because she “has not been raised to the stature” of finalist,” said District spokeswoman Cecilia Cummings.

While Goldsmith and others stressed that they had nothing against Ackerman or Nunery, or Jones for that matter, they were hoping that the District would have more choices.

“There may have been other candidates who would have applied if there wasn’t such a rush,” said advisory committee member Alfredo Calderon, executive director of ASPIRA, a Latino education organization. Calderon said he didn’t see any harm in extending the search, even for three months, to make it easier to attract current superintendents who want to finish out the school year in their jobs.

“The finalists were all great – each of them had certain strengths – but none of them was a perfect fit,” he said.

“There are too few names right now, and it doesn’t feel like the right one has surfaced,” said Helen Cunningham, executive director of the Samuel S. Fels Fund and a former member of the Board of Education.

Cunningham said she thought interim CEO Tom Brady, who did not apply for the permanent post, should finish out the school year and complete the task of balancing the District’s budget.

“Brady’s brought an enormous sense of calm to the District,” Cunningham said. “I don’t know what the sense of urgency is right now.”

Brady, hired as Chief Operating Officer in March 2007, ran into a Philadelphia buzz-saw when the SRC, led by James Nevels, named him interim CEO in a split vote barely two months later. The move angered both Gov. Rendell, who called him an “unfortunate choice,” and SRC member Sandra Dungee Glenn, who walked out of the meeting. The two said they were blindsided by the move. Nevels left as chair shortly after, and Rendell then installed Dungee Glenn in his place.

Brady, a product of the prestigious Broad Superintendents Academy, is a retired military officer who has also done stints as COO in Fairfax County, VA and Washington, DC. Reached this week, he said that he still has no plans to apply for the job, but reiterated that he is available to serve if the CEO search comes up empty.

Sources close to him said that was burned by the experience last spring and doesn’t want to expose himself again to that kind of political rejection. At the same time, his unwillingness to submit a formal application hamstrings his supporters.

He has a contract as COO that has another year to run.

District officials have maintained that only a minority of advisory committee members were frustrated with the process and the candidate pool. But according to interviews with participants, there was no obvious groundswell of support for any one candidate. The issue of reopening the search was first raised at the group’s interview session with finalists, participants said.

“I think there needs to be another national search with an extended timeline,” said Andi Perez, executive director of Youth United for Change and a member of the advisory group.

Under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to find someone to lead a big urban district, but finding one for Philadelphia has proven to be even harder than usual. The process has been fraught with twists and turns since the relatively abrupt departure of Paul Vallas last summer.

First, the SRC announced the unorthodox plan to hire two search firms, and then dropped one. It also initially said it would make the decision by December, potentially narrowing the pool. Most school district leaders would balk at leaving their current position in the middle of the school year.

The SRC involved the community by naming a large advisory committee to interview finalists. Some say the fact that names of candidates would get out before an offer was made was another deterrent for prospective candidates. “That eliminates most sitting superintendents,” said Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education, a member of the advisory committee. In fact, names of several candidates were leaked to the media early in the process.

Now, the SRC describes the search as still open, while its four members continue to consider CEO candidates in closed session. “The search is ongoing until they have the right person and a contract is signed,” said Cummings.

Joe Ferguson, chief of staff to the SRC, said that the goal is to select a CEO “within the next couple of weeks.”

In addition to the search’s logistical issues, there are other reasons for applicants to be wary of taking on the Philadelphia job. It is well known that the District is still struggling to eliminate a big deficit Vallas left behind. Gov. Rendell has made plain that he wants to install state budget head Michael Masch as the District’s “managing director,” which could lead a candidate to wonder about his or her autonomy. And the District’s governance structure – a School Reform Commission that reports to both the governor and the mayor – means that a CEO has to negotiate unusually tricky political territory.

Neither Mayor Nutter nor Gov. Rendell has spoken publicly about the search process or their preferences.

Lori Shorr, Nutter’s chief education officer, said that as a “latecomer” to the process since he’s only been in office for a month, the mayor “is working closely with the School District and the state to make sure the best person we can possibly get comes in to be CEO.”

Goldsmith proposed that District leaders have the search firm “find out who the top three or five people are and go after them, not just [settle for] who’s available. Then get Dungee Glenn, the mayor, and the governor to sell this position to them.”

While Goldsmith and others said a more aggressive search with political backing on a well-conceived timeline would yield better results, others emphasized that it still would not be easy.

“My sense is that Philadelphia is a particularly tough challenge,” said James Harvey of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, who studies urban districts. “Vallas was a national star and is a hard act to follow. And he left a huge deficit, which complicates the picture further.”

Even without that, urban leaders enter “a public and political environment in which failure is no longer an option,” he said. “It’s very, very difficult to find superintendents willing to take on large urban challenges.”

The Hollins Group of Chicago, which has a $120,000 contract to conduct the search, has extensive background in searches for management positions in education and nonprofits. But prior to this search, the firm’s most recent involvement in a search for a school district leader was in Atlanta in 2001.

Cummings said that the search firm is not placing any more ads in educational journals or newspapers. “Ads are expensive and they don’t yield many applicants,” she said. But Charles E. Taylor, the Hollins vice president who is leading the search, “is still calling people,” she said.

Former Philadelphia educator Nancy McGinley, now superintendent in the Charleston, SC school district, said that at the very least the SRC needs to clarify what it is doing.

“It seems confusing. They need to get clear publicly if they are inviting other people into this,” said McGinley, who said she was contacted by the search firm.

McGinley was one of the few people who actually met all the criteria set out for the new CEO: someone who knows Philadelphia, is an educator, and has held high-level jobs in urban districts. She said that she briefly flirted with the idea of coming back to lead the district in her native city – she was a longtime principal here and head of the Philadelphia Education Fund – but said that the timing was all wrong. She started in Charleston less than a year ago and has a four-year contract.

“I’m committed,” she said. “It would be irresponsible for me not to honor my contract.”

Alongside the calls for reopening the search, other advisory committee members raised lingering questions about the process.

“What we have to think about as a stakeholder advisory committee and as a community is whether any of these candidates is so right that we shouldn’t consider other candidates,” said Candace Bell, education program director for the William Penn Foundation.

Bruce Crawley, CEO of Millenium 3 Management and a member of the advisory committee, said that group didn’t have enough information to determine whether they were seeing the best possible candidates. The committee was told there were 37 applicants, but didn’t know on what basis the field was whittled down to three.

Crawley said he wonders whether there are more people out there than the 37 initially considered, and whether with an extended time line they would be willing to apply.

“Perhaps they did have the best possible people, but we don’t know that,” he said. “Unless that is explained, I’m not sure what we’d gain by reopening,” he said.

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