Hiring: Most Important Job in Philadelphia

A quick look at the two candidates for school district superintendent.

The Philadelphia School District has narrowed its nationwide search for a superintendent to two men. One is unproven, the other is uninspiring. Both come with red flags. That’s why the School Reform Commission should keep looking. The School District can’t settle for average or worse. It needs a stud who has what it takes to transform a failing and bankrupt school system in need of a major overhaul.

Pedro Martinez, a 42-year-old accountant who is deputy superintendent for instruction in Nevada, was in town Monday. He seems nice enough and said all the right things.

But with all due respect, what has Martinez ever accomplished? He has been in his current job for less than a year, a red flag that essentially provides no substantive track record. Martinez supposedly helped boost graduation rates. But the only way graduation rates increased in a meaningful and honest way in less than a year is by a fluke.

Second of all, the Clark County school district is home to Las Vegas, one of the sleaziest and dumbest big cities in the U.S. The school district is one of the worst-performing systems in the country. More to the point, Las Vegas is not known for churning out the best and brightest in students or leaders.

Third, Martinez has no experience as a teacher or principal. Now, the skills that make a great teacher don’t necessarily translate into being a great superintendent—but it helps when trying to get buy-in.

What Philadelphia needs is a CEO who knows how to lead, inspire and manage a complex organization. The superintendent must have excellent communication, financial and political skills. He or she needs to be able to cut through thickets of bureaucracies and get stuff done. Think Willard Rouse with a ruler and eraser.

Martinez’s lack of classroom experience is not necessarily a deal breaker. But there is also nothing in his history that demonstrates he has the leadership, business or political skills needed to excel in the job, let alone survive cutthroat Philly and Harrisburg politics. (In general, nice-guy accountants make for a good No. 3.)

The big attraction, apparently, is that Martinez worked in Chicago under Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary. If Martinez was such a rising star, Duncan would have lured him to Washington. Instead, he is in Vegas looking to get out after a year.

Perhaps Martinez will morph into a great superintendent. But hiring an accountant from Las Vegas is a roll of the dice that Philly can’t risk.

The other finalist is William R. Hite Jr., the superintendent in Prince George’s County in Maryland. Hite, 51, has followed a more traditional career path for a superintendent. He was a teacher and principal before moving into the central office in Virginia before becoming a deputy superintendent in Georgia. He has a doctorate in education from Virginia Tech.

On paper, Hite is a safe pick. But he also comes with red flags. The Prince George’s school district stinks and has gone through turnover and big cuts. One citizens group has been encouraging parents to sign a petition of “no confidence” in Hite. The group cites Hite’s poor personnel decisions, wasteful spending, and “disrespect and disdain shown to teachers.”

Sounds like the second coming of Arlene Ackerman.

Of course, Ackerman crashed and burned in Washington and San Francisco and still got hired in Philadelphia. So when it comes to taking others’ retreads and rejects, there is plenty of precedent here.

But the last thing Philly needs is a superintendent who failed at his previous stop. At best, Hite is a safe pick who muddles along. At worst, he is another Ackerman. Neither option is appealing.

The school district is at a crossroads. The superintendent may be the most important job in the city. The next city schools leader can’t be a run-of-the-mill boss who rolls out yet another reform plan with a fancy name only to leave in three to five years having accomplished very little.

The SRC can’t settle for an unproven or an uninspiring leader. It needs to get this hire right. Only the future of the city is riding on it.