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Philly school board rejects calls to reopen superintendent search

A woman in a yellow coat speaks into a microphone in front of a brick building, while several other people stand to her left and right. One woman is holding a sign that says, “Where are the women? AAPS.”

Lisa Haver, center-left, a co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, speaks at a March 17 rally where the group called on the Philadelphia school board to reopen its superintendent search.

Dale Mezzacappa/Chalkbeat

The Philadelphia Board of Education will not reopen the search for a new school superintendent, despite some public disappointment with the selection of three men from outside the city as finalists to succeed Superintendent William Hite.

The board said in a statement Thursday that it “conducted a thorough, professional and transparent search” and has “proudly presented the three strongest candidates, all of whom have the experience, capabilities and track record that Philadelphians said they want in the next leader of the district.” 

The board said it whittled down a pool of 400 prospects to 35 people who they vetted more deeply, and then narrowed the list to 11 preliminary finalists. Of that group of 11, six were women and three “had experience in the Philadelphia education ecosystem,” the board said.  

But none of those people made the cut down to the three finalists. About a dozen protesters outside district headquarters Thursday said the board’s decision to consider only men from outside the city represented very poor judgment. And a member of the city council also expressed dissatisfaction with the results of the process so far.

The board plans to announce the next superintendent the week of March 21. Philadelphia has not had a homegrown superintendent since Constance Clayton, who served from 1982 to 1993.

The finalists are John L. Davis, chief of schools in Baltimore; Krish Mohip, a former Chicago school official who now works at the Illinois State Board of Education; and Tony C. Watlington, superintendent of the Rowan-Salisbury district in North Carolina.

This week, each finalist met with parents, students, and educators, and also participated in a town hall with the general public. 

The search was run by the firm Isaacson, Miller, with support from an advisory committee comprising 13 Philadelphians “representing diverse communities and constituencies across the city,” the board’s statement said.

Megan Smith, a spokeswoman for the search, said Friday that the board would announce the new superintendent next week, but there’s no date or time yet for that announcement. The choice will be announced at a press conference, not at a board meeting, Smith also said.

The board will deliberate privately over several meetings, said Smith. As part of their deliberations, board members will have written feedback from people who participated in the parent, student, and educator meetings, as well as the town halls.

The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, the school board’s most vocal critic and watchdog, held Thursday’s rally urging the board to start over. 

Protesters chanted “continue the search” and held signs on the steps of the district’s headquarters at 440 North Broad Street. 

“It’s kind of shocking” that the board couldn’t come up with a single woman or Philadelphian among the finalists, said Robin Lowry, a longtime health and physical education teacher in the district. 

In addition, state Sen. Tony Williams, a Democrat who represents Philadelphia, wrote an op-ed on Wednesday calling for the choice of a new superintendent to be delayed until a new mayor takes office, which will not be for another two years. 

City Councilmember Helen Gym stopped short of asking for the search to be reopened, but expressed disappointment in the results. 

“I think many people feel the pain of not seeing a woman or a local candidate in the mix, and I hope this knowledge leads us to prioritize investing in our local talent, as we clearly have not done enough on this front,” she said in a statement. “The next administration’s senior leadership should showcase the exceptional talent present within our District, particularly from women of color. Given the lack of local ties among any of the finalists, this is non-negotiable.”

Gym added that of three finalists, Watlington is the only candidate she is open to supporting.

Later Friday, the advocacy group Our Cities Our Schools also expressed support for Watlington.

“He was the only candidate who convincingly talked about bringing stakeholder communities together and empowering people,” the group said in a Facebook post, adding that members had spoken to school communities in North Carolina and “gotten glowing recommendations.”

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in the city. She is a former president of the Education Writers Association. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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