Superintendent William Hite will leave the top post in Philadelphia public schools next year, choosing not to renew his contract after nearly a decade in the job, he announced late Monday.
Hite, 60, will step down in August 2022, following a challenging stretch managing education during the pandemic. In a letter to parents, Hite said he shared the news now so that there could be a “full and complete” search for the next superintendent and that he is “not going anywhere” in the meantime.
“The work we do together for your children is critical and I am fully with you and supporting your families during this year,” he wrote.
Hite, a former teacher and principal, led the district through a period of severe austerity and is credited with bringing some stability to a chronically underfunded district charged with educating mostly low-income children with significant needs.
Under his leadership, the district improved its financial condition enough to be returned to local control after nearly two decades under the state-dominated School Reform Commission. The state took the district over in 2001 citing fiscal and academic distress.
But this month, dire shortages of bus drivers, food workers, classroom aides, and other vital workers caused a chaotic situation as schools struggled to reopen for in-person learning. Hite has said he considered his ninth year leading the school district to be his most arduous. In March 2020, he was forced to shut down schools for 120,000 district students due to COVID-19.
Hite’s administration did succeed in reaching a contract agreement by the Aug. 31 deadline with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers despite the union’s continual disagreement over school conditions, the first time in 30 years that a settlement was reached before the prior contract expired.
During his time here, the city also saw charter enrollment grow to educate a third of the city’s students in public schools. In 2012 and 2013, the district closed 24 of its schools and merged or relocated five more, which had a wrenching impact on many communities and caused public outrage.
Test scores and graduation rates increased slightly during Hite’s tenure, and the district has embarked on an anti-racism initiative to combat internal inequities, including an underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic students in the district’s selective schools. The Board of Education adopted a “goals and guardrails” leadership approach that sought to put the focus on academic achievement and find ways to send more resources to the neediest and lowest-achieving schools.
Hite would be the latest in a series of big-city school district leaders to resign, retire or otherwise step down in recent months, some citing fatigue as a reason for learning their posts. Chicago Schools CEO Janice Jackson left her role in May, following similar moves by the leaders in Los Angeles, New York City, and Broward County, Florida.
“This year has been difficult. It’s been difficult for everybody,” Hite said in an interview with Chalkbeat last March. “We’re navigating something we haven’t been through before.”
In the first challenge of the pandemic, the district had to pivot from teaching students in buildings to teaching them while they were at home, making sure that all its students had the hardware, the software, and the broadband access necessary for virtual learning, as well as continuing to provide meals.
An even larger hurdle was the move back from remote to in-person learning. After numerous attempts to reopen school amid the pandemic, the district opened its doors to some early learners in March. Students were brought back in phases as the district pushed to reopen school buildings last spring for a “hybrid” learning experience.
But even before the pandemic, the district was plagued with concerns about the safety of its aging buildings, especially around ventilation. And while the initial plan was to open schools last September, as most of the city’s private and parochial schools did, teachers protested in the bitter cold and threatened to strike over ventilation issues. A third-party mediator from Chicago arbitrated the dispute, and though the issue was resolved, complaints persist over building safety — not just ventilation, but loose asbestos, the presence of mold and general disrepair.
Hite became superintendent in September 2012 at a time of historic turbulence. Prior to his arrival the district was being run by a “chief recovery officer” who had plans to close 64 schools and divvy up the rest into “achievement networks” run by teams of educators or nonprofit institutions.
The district’s outlook remained bleak despite a state takeover in 2001 to address its financial and academic distress. The School Reform Commission that had replaced the local school board favored privatization and the creation of charter schools over more traditional means of education reform. And giving the district more funding wasn’t part of the reform agenda.
The situation reached a crisis shortly after Hite took the helm when Gov. Tom Corbett cut $1 billion in state aid to districts after federal stimulus money stopped.
With a quarter of that amount — $250 million — absorbed by Philadelphia, the district was forced to lay off all its counselors and nurses in an effort to make ends meet.
In the years since, the district has gotten on firmer financial footing, allowing it to make additional investments. But it never quite got to the point of eliminating its structural deficit, which means its yearly revenues never exceeded its yearly expenses. Budgets were often balanced through one-time grants from City Council rather than a recurring tax increase, and the state never significantly increased its yearly allocation to its largest district.
Philadelphia, like many other districts in Pennsylvania, is counting on a fair funding lawsuit scheduled to go to trial in November that will force the state to increase its education spending and allocate the state dollars more fairly, based on a formula that is based on enrollment and student need.
Last year, Hite’s name appeared on a short list to serve as education secretary under President Joe Biden. But for the first time, Hite received a “needs improvement” rating from the Board of Education in systems leadership and in promoting student achievement, citing the botched co-location of Science Leadership Academy and Benjamin Franklin High School and the continued closing of schools with potentially hazardous asbestos.
Before coming to Philadelphia, Hite, who was then 51, had been superintendent of Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, another mostly poor and underfunded school district just outside of Washington, DC. There, like he would in Philadelphia, he was compelled to make tough spending choices.
He started his education career as a physical education teacher in his home state of Virginia. He became a middle school principal and spent 20 years in Henrico County, Virginia, before moving to become deputy superintendent in Cobb County, Georgia. He joined the Prince George’s district in 2006 as second-in-command and became superintendent there in 2009.
At the time, the school board president in Prince George’s said that he is “sincere about making child-driven decisions.” He described himself at the time as a “servant leader” who had ambitions to “completely revamp how schools are managed.”
At the end of this contract, Hite will have been in Philadelphia for a full 10 years, the time it takes to become vested in his pension.