Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Search for Process

With so many deceptive appearances along the way, the latest news about Boston’s search for a new superintendent of schools might be hard to hard to accept at face value. Last year, there was the appearance that the search committee’s finalists included Rochester superintendent Dr. Manuel Rivera. Then there was the denial. Later came his selection by the search committee, only to be clouded over by one more contradiction about his having been a finalist, not to mention the lingering uncertainty over the signing of a contract. Even when Dr. Rivera banished that uncertainty, there were new uncertainties—about why he decided to take another job, and whether the reason had anything to do with Boston’s search committee, especially its co-chair at the time, Dr. Elizabeth Reilinger. For a while, even Mayor Thomas Menino couldn’t get a straight answer because Rivera didn’t return his phone call.

One lesson drawn from the episode with Rivera is that a layer of confidentiality hides pitfalls. That’s why advocates and City Councilors have been making a new push for an open search process. They did that again last night, at a hearing by the Council’s Committee on Education. But just as important is what the advocates did not do: openly attack the Mayor and leaders of the search committee. Before last night's hearing, members of Community Partners had a chance to talk about the search process concerns with the mayor. After all, one other lesson that could be drawn about Rivera episode is that even the public announcement of his selection was no guarantee that he’d take the job.

In a prepared statement from the School Dept., leaders of the search committee said the process “would remain confidential throughout in order to recruit a top-notch leader.” The reason: “Increasingly across the country, school districts are moving towards confidentiality in the search process as a means of attracting highly qualified candidates who are unable to participate in an open process that creates vulnerability in their current positions.” The only wiggle room was left in the prepared statement by the co-chair of the committee, Cleve Killingsworth: “The committee will look for meaningful ways to involve the community in this important process without compromising the confidentiality of the candidates.”

At the hearing, advocates acting in concert as “Community Partners for a New Superintendent” expressed their ideas about what meaningful should mean. Most agreed the search process should go public once the committee comes up with finalists, despite concerns over the risk to a candidate’s current job. The assistant director of the Boston Parent Organizing Network, Myriam Ortíz, said, “We also believe the person has to be committed enough to take that risk of an open process.”

One change in the process is the addition of new members to the search committee: the executive director of the Grove Hall youth violence prevention program, Project RIGHT, Jorge Martínez, and the director of UMass. Boston’s Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development, Mirén Uriarte. The new co-chair of the committee is the pastor of Charles Street AME Church and School Committee member, Rev. Gregory Groover. And it was the make-up of the search committee that won praise in the prepared statement from the coordinator of the Latino Education Action Network at Mass. Advodactes for Children, Samuel Hurtado: “We at Community Partners for a New Superintendent appreciate that the Mayor and the School committee have appointed strong committee representatives whom we trust, who will stand up for our interests, and who we can hold accountable.”

That wasn’t good enough for the chair of the City Council Committee on Education, Chuck Turner. “A good (search) committee,” he said, “is no replacement for a good public process.”

Councilor Sam Yoon said getting the best possible superintendent was “absolutely compatible” with an open search process. And Councilor Michael Flaherty said candidates for superintendent “should expect at some point their name will be public and there will be public vetting.”

One of the few hesitations was from Council President Maureen Feeney, who observed that candidates from smaller school systems “may be very reluctant to place their careers on the line to say they are looking elsewhere.”

And that possibility might also trouble supporters of open process for candidates who become finalists. Even Hurtado mentioned the “need for confidentiality to attract candidates,” at least before getting to a final round. After almost six months of a school year without a new long-term superintendent lined up, and with other top-level positions in the School Dept. on hold, there's growing pressure to attract quality candidates who might be hard to find. For now, that means pressure to offer confidentiality. If the search yields more than one promising candidate, there could be more pressure to run the risk of open competition among finalists. If the process were to change accordingly, it would be just one more proof that picking a superintendent is less about sticking to formula than adaptation.

But, as last night’s hearing got under way, Councilors found themselves on the other side of public process, learning about the reconstituted search committee from an article on boston.com.
If that wasn’t enough, the School Committee members they wanted to ask about the search didn’t show up. Turner said even the mayor’s education advisor failed to give him a heads-up about the latest on the search process. He called it a show of disrespect by the mayor.

“What that says in terms of how he sees us as a Council,” said Turner, “is really amazing.”

Or is it? Right after Rivera backed out, this was the same council whose members publicly called for Reilinger to resign from her other position as chair of the Boston School Committee. It's hard to say how much--or how little--those councilors contributed to Reilinger's decision to step down from being co-chair of the search committee. To judge from last night, they had trouble appearing influential, passing out copies of the story from boston.com, then struggling to shut off an alarm bell so they could start hearing testimony.

Link: hearing testimony from Black Educators' Alliance of Mass.