We’re glad to hear Baltimore County School Board Chairman Edward J. Gilliss say that the group has not yet settled on any of the options it has for finding a permanent replacement to disgraced former superintendent Dallas Dance — because some of the ones he floated are downright terrible. The board is expected tonight to approve a $75,000 contract for a national search for a new superintendent, and that could mean the system will try to select a new leader in the three months between now and the state-mandated start date for superintendents of July 1. Or it could up and decide to give the job permanently to the current interim superintendent, Verletta White. Either of those would be a big mistake. The only prudent option is to spend another year with an interim leader — whether Ms. White or someone else and leave the ultimate decision to the new school board that will take over in December.
That’s what we advised when Mr. Dance resigned unexpectedly a year ago, and nothing that has happened since then has changed that advice — not the revelation of charges against Mr. Dance, not reports that Ms. White had her own ethical lapse (albeit one on a much smaller scale) and not the guilty plea and its accompanying details of just how badly Mr. Dance had abused the public trust. In fact, the case for that approach has nothing to do with the recent scandals in the district or even with controversies over policies relating to technology in education or the allocation of resources. It’s simply a question of whether any candidate who is highly qualified to run one of the biggest school systems in the nation would do so at a time when the majority of the school board is about to be replaced by people chosen in the county’s first-ever elections for that body. Who would take a job knowing your supervisors would be different within six months and might or might not share your priorities? Add to that the fact that the search would begin about five months later in the academic year than is customary, and the pool is likely to become even smaller still. Under the best of circumstances, in a stable district with unified stakeholders, that would be problematic. In one riven by conflicts, it could be disastrous.
We don’t object to the board hiring a search firm now. The county absolutely should cast a wide net to recruit the best possible leader. But the board must immediately make a decision about what it’s trying to achieve. As Mr. Gilliss has noted, if you give a search firm a deadline, they’ll meet it, so the board needs to set a deadline that reflects a start date in 2019, not this year.
Who should run the district in the meantime? Ms. White has ardent supporters and detractors. She came up through the system and has substantial support from teachers and administrators, but others question whether she was too close to Mr. Dance both in terms of ethics (her failure of disclosure was similar to the offenses for which Mr. Dance pleaded guilty) and her policies and priorities. From what the public knows about her ethical lapses, we don’t believe they disqualify her from at least continuing to serve on an interim basis. She has admitted her error, the board has investigated, and she has agreed not to participate in the kind of outside employment that was at issue in her case (and Mr. Dance’s). She offers the opportunity to have a stable bridge to whatever policies and priorities the new board may bring, and unless the current board knows something we don’t, we would be inclined to say it should request a state waiver to keep her on the job for the next academic year.
Baltimore County schools need strong, stable, long-term leadership, not to settle for what they can get on the quick. We recognize that there are now many factions demanding different things from the board, and many factions on the board itself, but members should resist the pressure and take the time to do this the right way. The system can’t afford to make a mistake with its next superintendent.
Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.