The frustration that spilled out of the Richland 1 administration building was palpable Friday night as parents seeking more time to evaluate superintendent candidates got a lesson in the realities of sometimes secretive school board politics.
The selection of Craig Witherspoon, former head of Birmingham, Ala., public schools, was apparently a foregone conclusion, despite efforts by school board members Beatrice King and Pamela Adams to temporarily derail the process. As questions loomed about a man who remains an unknown quantity to the majority of the 24,000-student district, none of those who endorsed Witherspoon offered a public confirmation of his qualifications.
Vince Ford, the school board’s longest-serving member, appeared to be the de facto power broker. But he declined to elaborate on Witherspoon’s virtues as the top choice out of 77 applicants in a national search or why a couple weeks’ postponement on the decision would have harmed the search.
“It’s a process,” Ford said.
But the way that process was handled – with limited public input and an unwillingness to delay a decision once questions were raised about two of the three finalists – may not bode well for Witherspoon, whose contract is still in process. He could not be reached for comment.
“I think it’s really important for any school district to pick a superintendent that connects with students, faculty and staff,” said Stephanie Burgess, a former board member in Richland 2. “It is really important that there is buy-in, because that ensures the success of the superintendent.”
The selection of a new schools chief is key not only for the district but for Columbia. With some of the biggest developments in the city’s modern history now getting under way, families and businesses considering a move downtown will demand top educational choices in Richland 1, a district with some academic success in its 52 schools but challenged by uneven performance. In 2014, the district earned a C on the federal accountability rating system and reported an on-time graduation rate of 73.7 percent, both below the level of some other Midlands districts.
Some Richland 1 parents say none of the three finalists would be a good fit, because of controversial pasts and no apparent track records of success.
Witherspoon dodged two attempts to fire him from the troubled Alabama school system, dealt with issues of financial mismanagement and hiring snafus, a takeover by the state Department of Education and money scandals. Questions also were raised about finalist John Covington, a former Kansas City and Michigan administrator who exited his contracts early. Diana Green, a Florida deputy superintendent, was the third finalist.
Neither the Birmingham school board nor Witherspoon made public the reason for his resignation.
“This man has missed being fired and in lieu of being fired, he resigned,” Trinette Capone, whose children attend A.C. Flora High School, said after Friday’s vote. “So how can you with a good conscience be OK with bringing him into this district? It’s ridiculous.”
The near implosion of the Richland 1 superintendent search brings up the potential pitfalls of national executive searches that turn up candidates who are unknown to the community and who know little about the community they would serve.
The Midlands superintendents with the most longevity and, arguably, the most success – Steve Hefner in Lexington-Richland 5 and formerly Richland 2, and Karen Woodward in Lexington 1 – are largely homegrown, having risen through the ranks of S.C. school districts. Richland 1’s John Stevenson also rose through district ranks before getting the top job there, first from 1986-94, then again in 1999, coming out of retirement to fill in during the search for a new chief.
No one yet knows whether Witherspoon will be the charismatic leader that Richland 1 needs.
Some, such as Susie Dibble, a former Richland 1 school board member, are skeptical.
“I think he will come, and we will remain our stagnant little selves,” said Dibble, who urged an expansion of the candidate pool to include someone who could energize the community without bringing baggage from past controversies.
“His resume was extremely flat,” Dibble said, “and he used all the common education buzzwords that I’ve heard for the past six years and those are ‘engaging,’ ‘collaboration,’ ‘initiation.’ If you can say these buzzwords then you seem to be able to work yourself up in education. But I don’t see any action; I don’t see any passion for education.”
Columbia businessman Bennett Griffin, a vice president at Regions Insurance, said he completed a survey that the district circulated and urged the board to consider candidates with business expertise. But he didn’t see business acumen reflected on their resumes.
“It is like a $300 million business that they are basically the CEO of,” Griffin said of schools chiefs. “I was impressed that they reached out in the survey and everything seemed to be moving forward and quite frankly, we just got blindsided this weekend with these three candidates.”
“This is a public board, and this is a public entity,” he said. “I feel like we should be privileged to know more about the process.”
Falicia Harvey, SIC chairwoman at Hand Middle School, said she wants to invite Witherspoon to some open forums before he signs his contract because she was not invited to any receptions to meet the candidates. The district held two “meet and greet” receptions that drew about 175 people, but many parents, including SIC and PTO leaders, said they were unaware of the sessions.
“He needs to know us before he comes,” she said. “One thing that was frustrating is what (chairwoman) Cheryl Harris presented (Friday) was not what happened. There was not a tweet, not an email, not a call.”
Richland 2 may provide an object lesson in making sure a community and its fledgling leader connect.
When Hefner retired in 2010, Richland 2 engaged B.W.P & Associates, the same executive search firm now working for Richland 1, to find his successor.
That new superintendent, Katie Brochu, had a brief honeymoon with the district, but soon administrators and parents began complaining that she did not understand Richland 2’s culture. She was blamed for declining SAT scores and the departures of dozens of working retiree teachers. Brochu left after three years, and the board turned to a longtime district veteran, Debbie Hamm.
Former Richland 2 board member Burgess, one of Brochu’s early supporters, said Friday she learned some tough lessons going through the process.
“Personally I felt we had the buy-in with Brochu, but with the changes we wanted her to make, we probably moved too fast and misstepped,” she said.
Ultimately, that is a lesson that a school board needs to take to heart, she said.
“I would caution any board that you must have buy-in from the community in order for the community to move forward with a new superintendent,” Burgess said.
“In order to make it work, it’s the whole village.”