Now that the search for the Superintendent of the Berkeley schools is back at square one, there will be plenty of time for members of the community to engage with the Board on the substance and process of their continued search. But the fiasco that just unfolded offers a few obvious lessons that the Board would be wise to heed.
Lesson #1: This is a smart, thoughtful, resourceful community. We know the difference between real engagement and lip service. This District likes to say the right things about “community outreach,” but the reality often feels we are being asked our opinion in a pro forma way that will enable District officials to claim later that they took input from parents and teachers. Real engagement is what happened this past week, when members of the community, on their own, dug up information about the Board’s chosen candidate, revealed it to be disqualifying, and blasted the Board with hundreds of emails in the space of a couple days. Going forward, the Board needs to figure out how to harness the intelligence and creativity of this community to actually help it make this critical choice, not to help it look like it is being responsible.
Lesson #2: Vetting a candidate is no more of a formality than public engagement is. Remember, the Board unanimously announced Dr. Heatley as the finalist for the position. The first clue that this process was flawed? When the press reported that Dr. Heatley told his current School Board president that he had “accepted” another position. This happened the day before the team from Berkeley arrived to conduct a site visit and interview the colleagues, teachers and parents who knew Dr. Heatley best. Regardless of whether Dr. Heatley legally accepted an offer (which he obviously did not, since the Board had not yet voted), it is clear that he was given some kind of assurances from Berkeley that the job was his. There is no way a vetting team can engage in an objective, searching review when the ultimate decision to hire the guy has already been made.
Lesson #3: The Board should not settle. All members of this community should reject the notion that no sane, competent person would want to come to Berkeley and take a well-paying job as our Superintendent. I cringe when I hear people say this. As I said above, this is a caring, engaged community, and it is one that consistently votes to tax itself so our schools have the resources that other districts in California have long gone without. The overwhelming reaction to the revelations about Dr. Heatley is not a reason to stay away; it is a reason for the right person to seize the opportunity to lead our schools. It means looking for someone who can tackle the achievement gap and who embraces the Welcoming Schools curriculum; someone who understands the reality of the importance of test scores these days, but is not beholden to them as the sole method of evaluating student achievement (or teacher performance); someone who is not afraid to make difficult decisions, but does so after meaningful consultation with all stakeholders. I refuse to believe such a candidate does not exist. It may take some time to find him or her, and will almost certainly require an overhaul of the process. Fortunately, we have competent administrators in place now working on an interim basis. Let’s give them time, and then get it right.
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