A poor decision, or the right man for the job?

Published 11:56 am Saturday, June 14, 2014

Willie J. Bell Jr., the new superintendent of Franklin City Public Schools, faces a tremendous task ahead. And for him to successfully turn around Franklin’s failing system, it will likely require every ounce of professional training and experience he has developed in his years as an educator and administrator. The school board feels he is up to the task. Those who have spoken on his behalf feel he is the right man for the job. And the state superintendent and board of education, all of which vetted him and two other finalists for the job, found him to be a worthy candidate. I trust that the proper decision has been made, and I hope that Mr. Bell’s tenure at the helm of Franklin’s schools will be a long and successful one.

The current condition of the city’s schools is the entire city’s problem and, to borrow from a well-known phrase, it will take the entire city to turn things around. No one person can be expected to be a savior, no matter how qualified or experienced one might be. There are many in the community, myself included, who stand ready to join him on this journey and provide whatever assistance may be required. Unlike the offers of support made to the outgoing superintendent, I sincerely hope Mr. Bell will accept that which is offered. I wish him nothing but the best.

All that having been said, I have struggled in recent days to come up with words that adequately describe my frustration with the Franklin City School Board and its decision on the new superintendent while still being supportive of the new man on the job. Not because I feel Mr. Bell will ultimately prove to be the wrong choice, but because it flies in the face of community feedback and good old common sense. Much lip service has been paid by board members of late, plenty of it by school board chair Edna King, on the need for engaging the community and considering citizens’ opinions in the selection process. My suspicion, however, is that lip service was really being paid to the state board of education, whose specter has hovered over this school board for the last several months.

Regardless, the school board did at least go so far as to survey the community, soliciting input on the criteria used for selecting a new superintendent. Not surprisingly, 58 percent of respondents said they felt it should be a requirement that the candidate selected have experience as a superintendent, while 33 percent cited it as a preference. And it makes sense that the new head administrator would have such experience. Franklin’s school division, and especially its central office, is not exactly a well-oiled machine, which is precisely why a new superintendent was needed in the first place. Creating calm out of the chaos would be a big enough job for a seasoned veteran. Yet the board went out and hired someone with no experience as a superintendent, let alone one with experience in leading the turnaround of a failing school system.

None of this is to say that Mr. Bell will not do a terrific job, and he will certainly have his share of folks encouraging him along the way. But the board’s decision has left many, including me, scratching our heads. And in the name of transparency and community engagement, it would be appropriate for the school board to explain its decision. Although if past performance were any indication of future behavior, I wouldn’t expect an explanation any time soon.

I just hope that, despite making what on paper seems to be a poor decision, the board did hire the right man for the job.

TONY CLARK is the associate publisher of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at tony.clark@tidewaternews.com.