Ortiz y Pino
Don't Hire the Patsy
APS' search for a new superintendent
By Jerry Ortiz y Pino
I wasn’t able to attend the public meetings conducted by the search committee for a new APS superintendent. The committee’s purpose was to gather input from the community on two important issues the search will have to confront, so I’d like to toss my own two cents into the pot.
The first issue is on the qualities we should look for in applicants for this crucial job. There are many schools of thought on this subject. Some say the superintendent needs to be “Super Teacher,” an educator first and foremost, someone with lots of classroom experience who thoroughly understands how to help kids learn.
Alternately, there are those who contend that the head of a billion dollar entity serving 100,000 students with 20,000 employees ought first to be an executive, someone skilled in delegating responsibility, motivating and holding others accountable, securing resources for the success of the operation and focused exclusively on the big picture, not mired in 10 million decisions about detail.
Then there are people hoping to find a “Che Guevara” superintendent, someone capable of bringing revolution to APS. They say the district has become impossible to govern, that it is so large and ponderous it essentially moves on inertia, its course never-changing, grinding all in its path as it descends inexorably toward mediocrity.
What this situation demands, the revolutionaries say, is a forceful leader, one with a fresh vision, a recipe for transformation. They seek a superintendent who will not be afraid to throw a few bombs around, shake up the system, inject excitement where now all is drowsiness. And if there are a few casualties created in the process, well … no one promised revolution would be easy.
There are a dozen other types of superintendents people hope the process will unearth, and all the variants have attractive (and disheartening) facets. I don’t want to suggest there won't emerge a clear choice, a single person who marvelously combines enough of those different qualities to satisfy our outrageously unrealistic expectations. No, it could happen. But it will be tough.
Issue No. 2: Should the district go outside itself to find its new leader?
How you answer that question depends largely on how you’ve answered the first. Compliant bureaucrats who’ve spent their careers buried in an organization’s bowels and accommodating its demands only emerge as revolutionaries in science-fiction fantasy.
If the search committee wants continuity, essentially staying the course with only minor adjustments in orientation, it should limit its search to inside APS, confining its interviews to those who have largely shaped the institution into what it is today.
But if it wants to move APS from the present path, I suggest that will take someone not comfortably socialized by years of diligent labor in the traces of Albuquerque’s public schools.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the next superintendent will have to be imported from out of state. There could well be administrators within New Mexico, probably even within Albuquerque, who have the skills to bring about organizational change on the scale many would like to see occur within APS. A few of those skilled administrators may even be professional educators, active or retired.
A national search isn’t a bad idea, even though the last few national searches have produced dismal results. But what we should learn from these past bad experiences is if you go out of state for your top executive, you are wasting your time unless you also give her or him the latitude to bring in a team of supportive associates.
When UNM brings in a new basketball coach, we don’t saddle him with the requirement that he has to work magic using the assistants leftover from the last coach. We have the common sense to expect him to bring in his own team of associates, people who share his style and vision.
And when a new governor or mayor is elected, we don’t suggest they retain the previous administration’s cabinet. They get to choose the department heads with whom they will collaborate. It gives a new executive a fighting chance of being able to achieve her or his mission.
Yet when, in the past, we’ve brought in a superintendent from outside New Mexico, we’ve brought that person in as a solo act. We’ve introduced him to “his leadership team.” We’ve plopped him down on the top of an organization chart like a fancy hood ornament on a jalopy—then muttered when the engine kept misfiring.
That approach is a guarantee for failure, a set-up for the new guy to be the patsy. You can pay a scapegoat $200,000 (or more) a year, but he’ll still only be a well-paid scapegoat if he doesn’t have a fair shot at succeeding.
So my one bit of advice to the APS search committee is this: If you decide to select a candidate from outside the system, go for it. But at least give that person the tools to get the job done. Allow the new superintendent to bring in a team of associate superintendents of his or her choosing.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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