Wake gets it right in superintendent search

December 20, 2012 

The Wake County school system has hung a “help wanted” sign. It’s looking for a new superintendent of schools.

The request doesn’t include the proviso, “No generals need apply,” but after the rocky experience of hiring former U.S. Army general Tony Tata to run the schools, the school board majority has made their preference clear: They’re more interested in candidates whose experience with gold stars involves handing them out in a classroom rather than wearing them on their shoulders.

The board doesn’t hold any grudge against generals. It’s also not looking for former admirals or even captains of industry. Democrats who now lead the board were sufficiently scorched by the Tata experience that this time around they’ll skip nontraditional candidates. They want someone to run the schools who knows something about schools.

That is a reasonable preference. Prior to Tata, it had also been a requirement that anyone taking the job be an educator. The Republican majority that took office following the 2009 election dropped that requirement. They sidestepped the usual search procedure and hired a headhunter that would look beyond candidates with typical qualifications.

It was an approach in vogue among conservatives who think candidates who come up through the education field are trapped in an insular and bureaucratic mindset. The board looked for a fresh perspective.

In Tata, the board got a perspective different from traditional thinking on education. Unfortunately the former general, supposedly hired to instill soldierly precision and raise his troops’ morale, couldn’t get the school buses to run on time, soured his relations with some board members and developed a reputation for autocratic leadership.

Letting Tata go costs the school system $253,625 in a severance package. But, now that the majority has discussed its reasons, it’s clear that it would have cost more in efficiency, staff morale and relations with the board to keep him.

Those who lead schools should be able to learn their lessons. The board majority has: Set a traditional standard and you will have a better chance of getting capable leadership.

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