Filling Dance's shoes

If we were to pick one statistic that bolsters Dallas Dance's contention that he is leaving the Baltimore County school system in better shape than he found it, we would point to last year's high school graduation rates. For the first time, black students in Baltimore County graduated at a slightly higher rate than white students, and both groups graduated at rates above the state average. Baltimore County is the only big district in the state for which that's true.

Mr. Dance made "equity" the byword of his administration, and he devoted his attention and resources to ensuring all students had the opportunity to learn. In a county that is rapidly growing more racially and ethnically diverse, that was absolutely the right priority. He didn't always go far enough in publicly advocating for integration in the schools — a point he has recently acknowledged — but he certainly pushed the district in the right direction.

He has faced opposition since his hiring as a 30-year-old wunderkind in 2012, with critics questioning his experience and his priorities, particularly his push to increase the use of classroom technology. Some of the concern was legitimate, as with his lapses of judgment and disclosure related to a consulting job he held early in his tenure with a company that did business with the district. Some of it — like politicized harangues from Comptroller Peter Franchot and Gov. Larry Hogan about the pace at which the county was air conditioning its schools — was not.

Recently, though, he has faced an unusual degree of acrimony from some members of the school board, with the demand by one that he resign over his re-tweet of a message supporting minority students being only the most prominent example. Though Mr. Dance appears not to have given much explanation for the sudden announcement to anyone, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz theorized that the taxing nature of his job had begun to wear him down. Perhaps we'll eventually find out there's more to the story than that, but wrestling for hours with board members who can find ways to oppose him on the most picayune of issues must be exhausting.

The question of how to replace Mr. Dance is complicated by timing. State law requires superintendents to work under four-year contracts beginning on July 1, and School board president Edward Gilliss is right that there isn't enough time between now and then to conduct a thorough, national search for the best person to take over the nation's 25th-largest school district. The board should look for an interim leader for the district, probably from within the system itself.

But there are other complications. Next year, seven of the 11 members of the board will be selected in non-partisan elections, one from each councilmanic district. Additionally, two of the four current members appointed to at-large seats will be replaced by candidates recommended by a new school board nominating commission and selected by the governor. That is to say, as many as nine of the 11 seats on the board will have new occupants on Dec. 2, 2018 — just six months and a day after the earliest feasible point at which a newly appointed superintendent could take office. Anyone who would take a job knowing that the people who recruited him or her will be gone in a matter of months is not someone we want running the district.

The alternative is to have an interim leader of the system for two full years. That's not ideal, but it's better than hiring someone whose priorities may not align at all with those of the newly elected and appointed board members.

No question, it would have been better if Mr. Dance had been willing to stay on the job until after the new board takes over. If he'd like to reconsider, we would be happy to forget this whole thing happened. But unless that happens, we urge the current board to refrain from looking for a permanent replacement. Even if the final selection is made by the new board, the parameters of the search could substantially affect the type of candidates who apply.

We believe the next superintendent must continue Mr. Dance's efforts to foster equity, and we are not certain that all members of the board share that view. But that's not the point. It's been years in coming, but Baltimore County voters are about to get a direct say in the direction of their school system. Whatever direction they choose at the ballot box next year, they should have a superintendent to match.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad