School District Needs Succession Plan

Article excerpt

Why don't more urban school districts like Duval County have a solid plan in place for succession of the chief executive?

Why can't an organization of this size - 123,000 students, more than 160 schools, more than 14,000 employees - have a plan to groom top management for the organization's most important?

It's a mystery that we sought to unravel in recent weeks.

Duval County has hired superintendents who came from the ranks, notably the current one, Ed Pratt-Dannals. But the sense is that did not happen based on a strategic plan.

REASONS WHY IT'S RARE

The fact is Duval County is not alone. Former mayor and UNF President John Delaney says it is rare among government agencies to require succession planning. That is an explanation and not an excuse.

The Broad Center in Los Angeles works to help train superintendents for future positions. Executive Director Becca Bracy Knight said in a telephone interview there are reasons why many large districts don't hire from within:

There is a halo effect for outsiders (think Joey Wise, the charismatic former superintendent who left in turmoil). The board knows the flaws of internal candidates and gets rudely surprised later with outsiders (Wise again).

A poor relationship with a current superintendent can taint that person's entire team. Not fair, but it's reality.

There may be a legitimate desire to find someone externally because it's difficult to replicate all the demands of the head job.

Political turmoil on a board can cause a desire to take a new direction.

If a superintendent lasts only a few years, which is the norm for urban superintendents, there is not enough time build a team. The Broad Prize tends to go to districts with superintendents with longer tenure, Knight said.

TOUGH FOR NEWCOMERS

Yet a large urban district like Duval County is such an incredibly difficult job, why subject a newcomer to such a large learning curve?

Duval County has a variety of neighborhoods, ethnic groups and cultures. All play a role in the public schools. The new superintendent could spend a year just visiting all the 160-plus schools.

M. Donald Thomas knows Duval County's schools after conducting an audit of the system for SchoolMatch in the 1990s funded by the Times-Union.

He has been involved in a consulting role in more than 200 superintendent searches. He is a former superintendent of the Salt Lake City schools where he served for eight years; his successor was appointed from within.

A superintendent needs more than a few years on the job to develop bench strength, Thomas said in a phone interview. Consistent leadership is needed. That can only come from a board that values strong leadership, evaluation and management development. …