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Visibility, political skills among traits wanted in next city schools superintendent

The Charlottesville community wants a new schools superintendent who is visible to the public, a strong leader and transparent, according to a report presented to the School Board.

The Illinois-based search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates compiled the leadership profile after talking to board members, administrators, teachers and community members. About 347 people filled out an online survey while another 150 participated in in-person interviews.

The School Board is aiming to select a new superintendent by late August; Acting Superintendent Jim Henderson is leading the division until then.

Overall, the consultants identified 12 desired characteristics that ranged from budget experience to instructional leadership and knowledge of middle schools, given the planned reconfiguration of Buford Middle and Walker Upper Elementary schools.

“We heard that people were expecting a change agent,” said Ann Monday, with HYA. “That’s not surprising. If you’ve had somebody with a long tenure, of course, you’re going to look for change, that’s just natural. … To say that somebody wants change does not mean that the past is bad. It means people are very open and expect somebody to come in and address things differently and to have a new perspective.”

Brad Draeger, also with HYA, said they heard several times during the interviews about the need for a fresh set of eyes.

“Somebody who can not only say this is what we need, somebody who can execute and get the change to take,” he said. “Because you can say you need it, but to actually get the change, that’s the hard part.”

The leadership profile will inform the superintendent search process and help potential candidates get a sense of the community and expectations. The comments and survey responses regarding the division’s strengths, challenges and desired characteristics were compiled into a 32-page report.

Those who weighed in online or in-person praised the division’s Advanced Placement offerings at the high school level, recent equity initiatives, programs related to social-emotional learning and fine arts, graduation rates and quality of staff. Former Superintendent Rosa Atkins’s lengthy tenure also was noted as a strength.

However, expanding career and technical education pathways and equity work to include English language learners and LGBTQ students is a priority, along with retaining diverse staff members and creating a strategic plan with measurable goals and outcomes.

“We do a lot of stuff, but do not measure what we do,” one respondent said in the report. “District has a slogan, but not a vision.”

Regarding English language learners, Monday said they heard from advocates who felt this group needs more attention.

“You need more translators and you need more languages, but just translating things is not enough, because you have to have some outreach,” she said. “… But what we’ve heard several times was that this is a population whose needs we’re not yet meeting. And also, in terms of academics, sometimes some of these students are put in classes with teachers who are not well-trained to actually teach second-language students.”

Another common theme was that expertise at the school level was not being utilized as much as possible.

“And that sometimes, it felt very top down in this district,” Monday said. “You had many qualified and talented teachers who felt that their voices were not heard and sometimes ignored.”

Draeger added that principals and teachers want to be more involved in the decision-making process and would like to see transparency from the superintendent and central office administrators.

“So there’s definite work and challenge for the new superintendent to make sure that the principals are engaged and their voices are being heard and they know that their voices are being heard,” he said.

Monday said she was surprised to hear about the issues of trust, transparency and collaboration, which will be something the new superintendent will have to address.

“If he or she wishes to be successful, [they are] going to have to build trust and relationships the old-fashioned way: visibility, talking to people, being available and being open.”

Community members said in the interviews and survey that knowledge of the community’s history is important. The report notes that the city “has a culture of citizen involvement and activism. People have deep beliefs and are not afraid to share them.”

One desired characteristic on HYA’s list is political skills to navigate successfully in a diverse, activist community.

“You told us this was an activist community,” Monday said. “You are right. We believe you. … This is not a job for someone who cannot understand that you’re going to be criticized.”

Board members were concerned about how to ensure that potential candidates have the necessary skills and experience for the job, especially for characteristics such as political skills that aren’t as easy to measure.

Draeger said they’ll look for demonstrable evidence wherever they can. That evidence might come from the candidates themselves, through reference checks or other research.

Board member Jennifer McKeever said a candidate who would meet all 12 characteristics sounds like a unicorn.

Monday agreed.

“No person is going to have all these skills at the same level,” she said. “This is what we culled out of what we were told both in the interviews and in the surveys. These are the characteristics that are most needed for success. We will look to find somebody who most matches these.”

McKeever added that humility is an important characteristic and that she wants someone who can have hard conversations about their weaknesses.

“Transparency requires honesty,” she said. “That’s where I think many of the characteristics point to.”

The board will meet in closed session in early August to review the slate of candidates and draft interview questions.

A confidential community panel will have the chance to individually meet with the finalists and give feedback; however, Monday emphasized to board members their responsibility in the search process.

“No one picks the superintendent except for the seven people on this School Board,” she said.


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