How the Next Superintendent Will Really Be Selected

We have recently observed Russia’s “democratic” takeover of Crimea.  As a democratically elected Crimean parliament holds a democratic referendum to join Russia, the stage-managing has been superb.  However, AACPS has demonstrated its ability to stage manage even more discreetly, which is very helpful in manipulating a supposed democratic process.  By contrast, Russia looks like a bumbler.

Government Transparency MattersSo how democratic will be the selection process for the next AACPS superintendent?  We have been given a blizzard of PR that the Board of Education will be responsive to the wishes of the community.  Last fall we had the public feedback sessions with the superintendent search firm followed by a public survey.  I wrote about the survey methodology here and here.

The Panel

Now we have what the chair of the search committee reportedly describes in the Capital as a “stakeholders panel” who “are representing the community.”   The panel is tasked with confidentially interviewing the seven candidates on behalf of the public to help reduce that number to three.  The Capital emphasized in a news article and subsequent editorial that the head of the search committee previously promised to reveal the name of the seven superintendent candidates and has now reneged on that promise, observing that the names will only be revealed to the members of the panel.

If the panel actually represented the broad cross section of community interests, that wouldn’t be a problem.  On paper, of course, the panel appears to do just that.  But as the Capital notes in its editorial, such appearances can be deceptive.  In the Capital’s diplomatic formulation: “who decided that these 20 people are representative? Well, the search committee itself came up with their names.”

To this I would add my personal observation that some of the people on the panel that AACPS hails as representatives of particular communities lack credibility.  One reason is that some of those communities are stage-managed by AACPS.  Another is that some of their leaders have been co-opted by AACPS administrators to the point where they see themselves as agents of the administrators from whom they seek favors (such as special treatment for their children and enhanced community prestige).

A hint at the hidden power dynamics at play is that the major AACPS stakeholders, the various recognized AACPS employee representatives, are missing from the panel.  How could that be when they will so obviously be intimately involved in the decision making process?  And how is it that they didn’t bother to show up and testify at those earlier public feedback sessions?  My answer: it would be bad PR for them to operate publicly.  But most important, they don’t need to because the most important “public” vetting process will be conducted secretly and separate from the panel.

The Real Insider Vetting Process

Here is how I expect the most important secret superintendent search process will be conducted.  The public might not be told who the seven finalists are.  But one can confidently predict that the various employee stakeholder groups have already found out and will be discreetly acting on that information by conducting their own independent vetting process out of the public eye.  They will contact their colleagues in the school systems where those superintendent candidates work, and those colleagues will have first-rate information on those individuals—far better than any committee of lay people or superintendent search firm could ever gather.

The first question they will ask is: can we trust this person or not? That is, can they be reliably expected to champion our interests?  If the answer is no, then the next question will be: what information can you provide us that will derail this individual as a viable candidate?  Here there will be countless options to choose from, as any effective leader will have many enemies and issues that can be used against him.  One way or another, this information will get to the Board of Education, and the Board of Education will take this information very, very seriously.  It will serve as the hidden veto, the real selection process, that the public never sees.

Recently, former County Executive John Leopold was sued (and later acquitted) for collecting “dossiers” about potential opponents using public resources.  But Leopold was an absolute piker in such efforts compared to what is commonly done in contemporary public school superintendent searches and will most likely be done behind the scenes in this search.  And the beauty of this dirt collection and distribution system using public resources, other than that no secret police files need be consulted, is that it need never be done in public.

The Capital’s editorial focused on the panel’s secret deliberations.  What I’m suggesting is that that isn’t the critical part of the search process that is secret.  It’s the access that insiders have to influence the process, regardless of what names are made public.

One type of transparency that I’d like the Capital to commit itself to is transparency about the sources that feed it dirt.  Recall the Annapolis City employee who compiled the dossier to bring down Annapolis Mayoral candidate Zina Pierre.  In that case, the Capital may not have reported on the employee (or only obscurely belatedly) because it would have required crediting the blogger, a competitor, who first reported the story (there are few things that a business hates more than needlessly giving a competitor free publicity!).   But whether it is reprinting press releases as news, spinning the news in favor of the powerful and advertisers, taking credit for the results of government investigations as its own, or hiding the pressure from its corporate parent (Landmark Media) for inexpensive, shoddy news, the Capital has a woeful transparency deficit in acknowledging its sources.  Given the current politics of superintendent searches in school districts such as AACPS, that’s a very dangerous trait for a local monopoly newspaper to have.   If the result of a transparent superintendent search process is that the locus of the hidden vetting process shifts from the Board of Education to the Capital, that’s not necessarily an improvement.  The Capital may get a stream of inexpensive, widely read news stories–but without doing anything to reduce the insider bias endemic to the current search process.  As desirable candidates drop out, the current bias may even be aggravated.

Conclusion

One thing we can be certain of is that the next superintendent will be a master at pretending that their top priority is the students.  If there is one political skill that all stakeholders can agree that the next superintendent needs, that is it.  On the other hand, with the quality of our local newspaper’s education reporting, it should be a very low hurdle for this superintendent search: with a compliant, cheapskate press (one that Putin could only pine for), selling the public a bill of goods just won’t require much political skill.

P.S. The Capital’s education reporter left the Capital on February 10, 2014.  Her replacement, Kelcie Pegher, was pulled from the Carroll County Times, another Landmark Media newspaper.  My impression is that the Capital’s education reporting has been improving.

Category: OPINION

About the Author ()

J.H. Snider, a political scientist and democratic reformer, is a student of local politics. For updates on his local and state articles, like this page. (This Facebook page is an experiment and may be discontinued.)