Wake should open its schools superintendent search

Dear Wake County school board,

The last time you were looking for a new superintendent to run the Wake school system, you made a smart move: You named three strong finalists and brought them to Raleigh to meet with the community.

That was in spring 2013. You chose Jim Merrill, who retired Feb. 1 and had a successful run of more than four years; in 2016 he was named the North Carolina Superintendent of the Year.

The process worked. You should do it again.

Unfortunately, your chairwoman, Monika Johnson-Hostler, has indicated that you are not inclined to do so. “Our intent right now is that we would just name the superintendent” and not the finalists, she told The News & Observer’s Scott Bolejack.

Johnson-Hostler says the board is being transparent because it sought community input before it begins interviewing candidates. The board used those comments from the community to develop a list of expectations. Those expectations are so vague (values employees, listens to teachers, is visible in community) they will provide limited value to the board as it narrows the field of applicants.

Still, involving the community from the beginning was a good move. But excluding the community at the end would be a bad move.

McPherson & Jacobson, the search firm that led the search in 2013 (but is not involved in this search), said naming the finalists and having them meet with the public would lead to greater public support when the board made its choice. It did. Merrill entered the job with the support of the community and then maintained that support.

There’s another benefit to naming finalists: It’s a way for the board to manage its risk by bringing possible shortcomings to the surface. It’s a kind of background check; no privately conducted research is as effective as crowd-sourced revelations.

For all of these reasons, the Wake County commissioners, who are seeking a new county manager, have revealed the names of their three finalists.

“Sharing the names of our finalists was an easy decision based on transparency and inclusion,” Jessica Holmes, chairwoman of the Wake commissioners, emailed us. “Our county manager plays a key role in implementing initiatives that will ensure that Wake County remains fiscally strong and one of the best places to live work and play. Accordingly, it was important for us to give our community partners and leaders a chance to give input and be factored into our decision.”

Other public agencies have used an open process in hiring for top jobs. Durham named finalists for its police chief in 2016 when it hired Cerelyn Davis, and Raleigh named finalists in 2013 when it hired Police Chief Cassadra Deck-Brown.

You have to get this right. Instability will make it difficult for you to meet your goals. The last three superintendents in Wake County served for fewer than five years. Before Merrill, Tony Tata served as superintendent for two years until the school board fired him in 2012. Del Burns (who returned as interim superintendent on Feb. 1) led the district for four years until he resigned in 2010.

Our public schools are among this community’s strongest assets. Publicly naming finalists and having them meet with the community will help ensure you get it right.

Best wishes,

The News & Observer