Hello (and Good-Bye?) to the New Superintendent

A primer on Philadelphia for William R. Hite Jr.

Welcome to Philadelphia, Dr. William R. Hite Jr., new superintendent and CEO of the School District of Philadelphia. Please note that “Broad Street” is what we call 14th Street, it’s “Queen Village,” not “Queens Village,” and the “Old” in Old City is not spelled “Olde.” We all have high hopes for your tenure and stand ready to help you make Philadelphia schools the pathways toward educational achievement and economic advancement that will help our city thrive. Yet, as I type these words, I am conscious that the odds are that I will be re-typing them with the name of a new, new superintendent in just a few short years.

The fact is that the average tenure of urban superintendents promises to be a brief one. In 2010, the Council of Great City Schools found that the average urban supe lasted less than four years and that was a major increase from a decade before, when the average tenure was just more than two years.

I gained insight into the superintendent business while leading an organization that helped public schools access construction funding. I had to represent my organization at the annual conference of the American Association of School Administrators, where I was introduced to many superintendents leading districts across the country and where I interacted with folks who cater to those superintendents. There is a cottage industry built around the fact that superintendents, like managers of professional sports teams, are often hired to be fired. Lawyers stand at the ready to negotiate deals and draft agreements for new superintendents to secure for them the most favorable contract possible and the protections necessary to encourage those brave men and women to take jobs that are likely to end with them being shown the door.

These law firms and consultants that specialize in negotiating superintendent contracts were handing out many more business cards than I was (and my organization held the potential to save millions in construction costs) and were much more in demand at the various cocktail parties and social gatherings. Remember how well compensated Arlene Ackerman was on her way out the door? She must have had some smart folks negotiating her deal.

Leading a large urban district is a stressful job, full of political pressures and potential pitfalls. The skills one needs to be successful at the job go way beyond educational credentials and experience with students and teachers. Dealing with budgets that run in the billions of dollars, crisis management in response to instances of in-school violence, and offering proper deference to countless elected officials are prerequisite requirements for the position. The job is even more complicated in Philadelphia (isn’t everything) with our fractured governance structure, ongoing fiscal woes, and recent history of superintendents wearing out their welcome.

I sincerely hope that Hite has the skill set necessary to succeed here, but know that even the most competent or extraordinary superintendent will need more than talent to make a difference. He will need favorable economic conditions and cooperation from, well, everyone—including elected officials, union representatives, civic leaders, business executives, parents and students. Even with all that, he will need some luck that one freak snowstorm, one unfortunate off-school-grounds incident, or one lost sports-championship game does not derail any positive mojo that the new superintendent creates.

It is not that Hite shouldn’t buy green bananas, but chances are that he won’t be around for Philadelphia’s next sports-championship parade. Then again, given the maddening lack of frequency with which those championship parades occur, who knows how many of us will be around for the next one?

So welcome to Philadelphia, Dr. Hite. Please note that we list the numbered street first when naming cross-streets (“40th and Market,” not “Market and 40th”), “Bouvier” Street is pronounced “boo-VEER,” and it matters who wins the Northeast/Central Thanksgiving football game (to some of us, at least).

We entrust in you the welfare of our children and, literally, the future of our city. I, myself, have three very important (and awfully bright and incredibly cute) reasons to wish you the best. For my three public-schoolers and for all our sakes, I hope there will be excellent reasons for you to be with us for a long time.