Friday, October 12, 2007

Superintendent Search Forum Brings Views

Barely a dozen people were on hand Thursday at the start of a community forum on what Plainfield wants in its next schools superintendent.

The number swelled to about 40 an hour into the session, but several residents deplored the poor turnout, citing a lack of notice and a conflict with a special school board meeting across town at Clinton School. That meeting was mandated by state Department of Education officials to discuss the board’s rating of 11 percent for governance in state monitoring that took place earlier in the year.

Officials said there had been adequate notice of the forum in newspapers, online and by fliers sent home with children. Bob Burkhardt, who was introduced as interim supervisor of special programs, said the other meeting at Clinton School was not open to the public, something that was not indicated on the district web site’s list of meetings.

Forum attendees included parents, community members, former school board members, retired teachers and a couple of bloggers.

Marvin Edwards of the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates collected survey forms that will be used to develop a leadership profile for the next superintendent and also took notes on comments from the forum attendees. Edwards said the forms will be used as an instrument in the search, but comments from the forum and two days of interviews with individual board members and constituent groups will be the basis of an executive summary that he will deliver at a meeting on Oct. 29.

Edwards said his firm believes in “front-loading” information for the search and does not work for people looking for jobs, but for boards seeking people for top posts.

“I’m going to listen to you,” he said, and he got an earful.

Speakers warned of political pitfalls and of hiring untried superintendents. They cautioned against candidates who don’t understand the role and those who fail to connect with the community. Some alluded to cronyism.

”What happens when the superintendent starts hiring incompetent administrators and uncertified administrators?” one speaker said. “What is the responsibility of the board?”

Edwards said the board can’t take on an administrative role and must rely on administrative review of credentials.

Recently, the district has had to remove a number of unqualified administrators under the direction of Interim Schools Superintendent Peter E. Carter, who was hired in June after former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard resigned.

Resident Maria Pellum raised a basic question about the form, saying the title of “superintendente” to some Spanish-speaking residents meant a custodian, not the chief school administrator. Others disputed her claim, saying it was generally understood that “superintendent” meant the person in charge of schools.

Among other issues raised:

--A retired teacher said he served under 18 different principals and 14 different superintendents during his tenure.

“One main thing was community input and we’re still where we were 40 years ago,” he said.

--The Rev. Gerald Lamont Thomas of Shiloh Baptist Church said candidates need to know “this is a tough nut to crack,” with many issues, “cultural, political and spiritual, as well as educational.” The new superintendent must have a “proven track record,” he said. Thomas also cited politicization of the school board, the possibility of state takeover and Plainfield’s isolation from its more suburban neighbors as problems.

Thomas said as part of a group called Leadership New Jersey, he learned that 60 percent of African-American males who enter 9th grade do not graduate. He said Plainfield High School went from being the number one high school to now standing .02 percent from being “the worst in New Jersey.” Thomas said he shared the report with former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard “and five days later, she resigned.”

Edwards said one of the first questions he hears from candidates is why the last superintendent left.

Howard had presented a replacement to the school board for former business administrator/board secretary Victor Demming at a June 5 meeting. But after a closed session, the board emerged without Howard to say there would be no vote. Board members later said Howard gave her verbal resignation that night, which she followed with a letter of resignation as of June 6.

In an emergency meeting on Friday, June 8, the board accepted Howard’s resignation, voted to hire Carter as interim superintendent and approved his recommendation to hire Michael Donow as interim business administrator/board secretary. Carter and Donow were on the job Monday, June 11.

Howard’s letter stated no reason for her resignation.

A state monitoring team that visited the district in early 2007 informed Carter that Plainfield was deficient in four of five performance areas. Carter has since had the task of making staff changes and other moves, with board approval, to address the findings. Carter will give his formal response to the state report at 7 p.m. Oct. 18 at the Emerson Swing School, Rock Avenue and West Front Street.

After Edwards gives his executive summary of the leadership profile on Oct. 29, the Illinois search firm will launch a national search over six to eight weeks. Five finalists will be presented to the school board for narrowing to three, then one.

--Bernice Paglia


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