Searching now for a new Baltimore County superintendent is a mistake

If the Baltimore County School Board wanted to conduct a national search for a new superintendent to start this summer, it should have done so last fall. It takes time to do such a search properly, and because of the schedule of the academic calendar, that is the time of year when quality candidates might start looking for new positions. We don’t know why the board didn’t initiate a search then, but we can hazard a guess: Since the board is about to be radically reconstituted via the county’s first ever elections for that body, there was good reason to doubt a highly qualified candidate would seek the job, knowing that the people who hired him or her would soon be gone and replaced by who knows who. It made a lot more sense to seek a state waiver to keep the current interim superintendent, Verletta White, in the job for another year and leave it to the new board to pick a permanent leader, whether Ms. White or someone else.

The fact that the board is considering conducting a national search now is a mistake that looks more like an attempt to mollify the public than to find the next great leader for the system.

If the board were going to do a national search for someone to take the job as of July 1, the date on which Maryland superintendents’ terms begin per state law, November would have been the time to do it. That, by coincidence, is when The Sun reported that Ms. White had failed to disclose about $3,000 in income per year from consulting work for an educational technology company, some of whose clients have no-bid contracts with the county system. Ms. White said she had not understood that such income was required to be disclosed on county ethics forms. She apologized, agreed not to take such outside employment in the future and filed revised disclosure forms. But the board did not even start seeking proposals from search firms until January.

It was toward the end of that month that Ms. White’s predecessor, Dallas Dance, was indicted for a much broader failure of disclosure, totaling about $147,000 in payments, including tens of thousands of dollars from a Chicago educational training company whose founders were indicted on corruption charges in 2015. If the allegations in the indictment are true, that means Mr. Dance lied to the school board and the community about his outside employment. The charges deepened skepticism that he made decisions in ways that fostered his personal interests, not those of the system and its students.

Mr. Dance was a controversial figure before the indictments, and since, public criticism of him has understandably intensified. Some of that is now spilling over onto Ms. White.

But what the indictment did not do was to alter any of the public’s understanding about Ms. White’s conduct. If the board was willing in November to give her the chance to demonstrate that hers was an honest mistake that would not be repeated — as we were — it still should be. The fact that Mr. Dance’s alleged misdeeds were far greater in scope than previously imagined shouldn’t change the public’s or the board’s judgment about her.

It is, of course, possible that the board knows something we don’t. The system’s ethics panel investigated her conduct and submitted a report with recommendations to the board. It has been kept confidential. If it contains information that makes the board believe it would be inappropriate to keep her on in an interim status next school year, it should act to replace her now. It is also possible that the board would conclude that Mr. Dance’s breach of the public trust was so great that the district can’t afford a leader with even a minor blemish on his or her record. That wouldn’t be entirely fair to Ms. White, but it wouldn’t be irrational. It would, however, also lead to the conclusion that she should be removed right away.

What we’ve got now looks like a political smokescreen to deflect criticism of Ms. White that is really more about Mr. Dance in the first place. And given the unlikelihood that this search will yield a stellar candidate, it’s an expensive distraction. Using an interim leader or leaders until the new, partially elected school board takes over was the right decision when Mr. Dance announced his resignation last spring, and it remains the right decision now.

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