The next superintendent

Published 8:40 pm Thursday, July 22, 2010

Curriculum. School construction. Pay scales. Every school board in the state has a plateful of important issues to work through at any given time, and the arrival of summer doesn’t reduce the load significantly.

There is, however, no issue faced by the Suffolk School Board that is more pressing or more important than that of selecting a person to lead the system as superintendent of public schools. With the retirement of Dr. Milton Liverman, the post has been filled temporarily by Dr. Deran Whitney, but that appointment cannot be considered the last word on the issue.

School Board members seem to be taking the responsibility seriously, having sought out Suffolk residents’ opinions on the issue of their preferred qualities for the next chief of public schools. Sadly, only one person took advantage of a public hearing held for that purpose, but a few dozen have visited the school system’s website and entered their thoughts into an online form that collects the submissions and makes them available to the School Board and others interested in the process.

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Some of those thoughts have been self-serving, others have been insightful. But one issue that has come up online deserves special attention. There seems to be something of a rift between commenters who wish the School Board would award the job to a local candidate and those who would prefer the city bring in someone from outside the system to take over leadership of Suffolk schools.

Both sides have compelling arguments. Those who want someone from outside the system say that an outsider would bring fresh perspectives, would be free of preconceived notions about Suffolk schools and the programs to be found there and would be more likely to be able to move Suffolk to the next level, educationally speaking.

Those who argue that the School Board should promote from within have the power of history on their side. Several of the last Suffolk school superintendents, including Liverman, have come from within the system. Such candidates already are familiar with the problems that Suffolk students face, and they have some understanding of the politics that inevitably informs the decisions of the School Board. Also, they could be more likely to earn the quick respect of teachers, faculty and administrators.

Really, though, the issue will be moot if the School Board concentrates its efforts on finding the best candidate for the job within the pay range available. Whether the next Suffolk School superintendent is a native of this fair city, a longtime employee of the school system or a transplant without any existing connection to the city’s schools pales in comparison to the question of whether he or she has implementable ideas about how to transform an often-mediocre school system into a high-performing one.

Find the person who has those ideas and knows how to make them happen, and you’ve found the person who should be Suffolk’s next school superintendent.