Verletta White: A bad process, but perhaps the right choice

Casual observers of Baltimore County Public Schools may have been surprised to learn that interim Superintendent Verletta White was offered the job permanently Tuesday evening by a school board that has made the selection process about as painful, awkward and disorganized as possible. The system, its students, parents, employees and other stakeholders deserved a better, more transparent and more collegial way of making such an important choice from a board that is fast earning a reputation for dysfunction — and is, mercifully, on its way out this fall.

Yet for all that folderol — particularly the on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again national search — the board has named a capable and experienced superintendent in Ms. White, who has proven herself to be a smart, homegrown and empathetic administrator. Had it not been for her ethical lapse, a failure to both accept and disclose outside consulting fees for seminars she attended no more than twice per year (and for which she received no more than $3,000 in any year over four years), her appointment might not have taken this long. She appears to have broad support among rank-and-file educators who believe they have in her a more sympathetic and mature leader than they had with her predecessor, Dallas Dance.

Since he announced his resignation a year ago, we have advocated for the board to refrain from hiring a permanent replacement until its new members are seated after this fall’s election. We thought it unwise to try to select someone who might soon be reporting to a board with completely different priorities. But hiring Ms. White now is much better than what had been the plan as recently as two weeks ago, when the board authorized a a quickie $75,000 national search aimed at finding someone ready to start as of July 1. We suspect that reflected the mindset of the board’s vocal minority and its disdain for Mr. Dance and anyone associated with his legacy rather than a serious desire by most board members to consider anyone but Ms. White. On Friday, Mr. Dance is scheduled to be sentenced on four counts of perjury to which he pleaded guilty in March. They relate to $147,000 in consulting work he failed to disclose.

Do we wish Ms. White had not made her ethical misstep? Yes — and so does she. But her lapse does not compare in either scope or criminality to Mr. Dance’s actions. And all the hemming and hawing, indecision and sometimes harsh debate within the school board should not take away from the reality that Superintendent White is a solid, stable choice at a time when the system is racked with turmoil.

Ms. White may come with a bit of baggage, but learning from mistakes has always been a fundamental part of education. Is there anything she can do or say to win over the four school board members who voted against her? We’re guessing not. The board has fallen into a pattern of high drama in recent years, often centered on its most right-wing board member, Ann Miller, who has shown little interest in advancing the cause of equity, technology or better measuring student and school achievement through standardized testing. For all Mr. Dance’s failures — and public corruption is a serious matter — his ideas about targeting underachieving low-income and minority communities within Baltimore County were spot on. And guaranteeing that such students have access to 21st century technology has been a worthwhile, if sometimes flawed, endeavor as well.

The more important goal for the new superintendent is to gain the confidence of the students, parents and employees of the Baltimore County Public Schools as well as the taxpayers who help finance that enterprise. If there’s one thing that all sides can agree on, it’s that confidence in the system is in short supply these days. That the last person in Ms. White’s job now faces possible prison time isn’t helpful. Nor is it helpful that the system has been unfairly maligned over faux controversies like the alleged need for window air conditioners in school buildings slated to eventually be torn down. Or whether the state’s comptroller and/or governor decides if Dulaney High School should be remodeled or replaced. A steady, unflappable presence on the Greenwood campus looks awfully attractive right now. Ms. White needs to demonstrate that the confidence of a majority of the school board has demonstrated in her is not misplaced.

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