THE STEALTHY manner in which the Richland 1 school board hired a new superintendent was not only unacceptable, it robbed the public of an opportunity to learn more about the candidates and sowed seeds of discontent that could be long-lasting.
The poorly handled process also did about as much to undercut the potential for success of the gentleman chosen to lead Richland 1 as any critic could do. Even if Craig Witherspoon were the perfect candidate, the school board’s ham-handed handling of the process set him up for failure. The former head of the Birmingham, Ala., public schools, will enter this community facing a trust and confidence deficit not totally of his own making.
We say not totally of his own making because Mr. Witherspoon does come with some unexplained baggage that has raised legitimate concerns. He twice survived attempts to fire him during his time as superintendent of the Birmingham system, which endured financial and hiring problems, a takeover by the state education department and money scandals. Mr. Witherspoon was supposed to serve as Birmingham’s superintendent through 2018 but resigned late last year. Neither he nor the school board made public the reason for his departure.
Naturally, some Richland 1 parents and residents wanted to make sure that their school board isn’t hiring someone else’s problem. That is why it was — and still is — important for Richland 1 board members to slow their process down and respond to concerns about Mr. Witherspoon. There also were unanswered questions about another finalist, John Covington.
Even if the questions raised about Mr. Witherspoon weren’t enough to disqualify him, they certainly warranted full and open explanations, which board members have yet to supply. The board is duty-bound to explain its thinking in making this hire in the face of what its members should have viewed as legitimate concerns.
Not only did board members not address the questions, but they didn’t even take the time to extol the virtues of Mr. Witherspoon that make him the candidate best suited to lead Richland 1. You’d think that after going through a field of 77 candidates, the board would be champing at the bit to tell how well this candidate preformed in interviews and how excited they are about where he can take the Midlands’ district.
But all district residents have gotten is silence. Nothing.
As far as we can tell, the board didn’t break any laws or rules in how it executed this search. As a matter of fact, we commend it for following the law and releasing the names of three finalists, something that hasn’t always happened with school districts and local governments in this community.
That said, when the board held public meet-and-greets so people could engage candidates, it did far too little to publicize the events in a manner so that those who wanted to could attend. Intentional or not, that left a lot of people out of the process and sent a message that district officials really didn’t want public input; the meetings were merely window dressing.
Even as the public was asking important questions and requesting more time to learn about the candidates, the board scheduled a hurried meeting and hired Mr. Witherspoon. Why couldn’t the decision wait a couple of weeks — or even a few days? If Mr. Witherspon indeed is the man for the job, he should be able to stand up to scrutiny.
Parents have every reason to be concerned. Before finalizing a contract and handing him the keys to the futures of Richland 1 students — if it hasn’t already rushed that through as well — the school board should take the time to answer questions about Mr. Witherspoon.