Mike Norman

Top priority: Finding a new leader at Fort Worth ISD

Fort Worth trustees are about to do something that will have more impact than any other single move they’ll make as elected school board members.

They’ll find and hire the person who will lead the education of more than 82,000 students and, we can hope, will bring out the best in every one of them.

The nine trustees must hurry and get this done — each of those young rays of hope needs the help of this new leader right away — but they cannot be hasty and can’t afford to be wrong.

Awesome as that responsibility is, every trustee ran for election knowing that the job was a tough one. The trustees have hired a nationally known search firm to help, one they say has close contacts with the nation’s top educators.

So let’s get this task done. The board is scheduled to meet Monday to discuss the process and set a timeline.

The new hire will replace Walter Dansby, who resigned June 2.

From the previous experiences of Fort Worth and other Tarrant County school districts, and from other high-profile public administrator hires, we know many of the issues that will arise.

Over the past half-century, superintendents in Fort Worth have tended to spend about six years in the job. Most have been at odds with the school board when they left. Dansby’s tenure was shorter than most, only a little over two years.

The first question: Hire an internal candidate or someone from the outside?

An experienced administrator who’s already working for the Fort Worth ISD has a leg up on other applicants by already being familiar with local issues, where the district’s strong and weak points are, what strategies have worked in the past and the current strategic plan.

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An internal candidate is also more of a known quantity for trustees.

But all of those strengths become weakness if trustees decide they’re looking to wipe the slate clean and start anew.

Almost certainly, there will be pressure on school board members to hire someone who reflects the district’s racial and ethnic diversity. It’s easy enough to say the board simply wants the best qualified person for the job, but not being able to find fully qualified minority candidates these days strains credibility.

Diversity in the top job has not been Fort Worth ISD’s strong suit. Dansby was the district’s first-ever African-American superintendent. His immediate predecessor, Melody Johnson, was the first woman.

The district’s student body is 60 percent Hispanic, 23 percent African-American and 14 percent white.

As with any high-level hire in any industry, trustees have to look at a candidate’s previous experience as the surest indicator of future success.

Some people say a proven leader from any large public or private enterprise could also run a school district. I don’t buy it.

Trustees should be looking for someone who can articulate strategies for educating students in Fort Worth, turning around those schools that are not doing a good job, challenging high-achieving kids and finding the best in those who are not currently doing well.

We’re not looking for someone with the best educational theory. We want someone who can show us what works and how to get there.

That’s not easy, but neither is it asking too much.

Finally, it’s only natural for trustees to look for someone they like. It became clear before Dansby left that he rubbed some of them the wrong way.

Fine. For all their thankless hard work and personal effort, trustees should be free to make some personal judgments.

But the bottom line is student success. No one will be happy without it.

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