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History offers lessons in selecting superintendent

Thursday, January 29, 2009 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:17 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 11, 2009

As we wait to meet the finalists in the top-secret search for Columbia's next school superintendent, let's pause for a look back.

Before we get to the history, I have to say that if the job market weren't so bad, it would be hard to see why anybody very smart would want the position. Even the people doing the hiring seem leery. Both the president and the vice president of the school board are bailing out. The most outspoken board member has pulled her son out of the schools she oversees.

The district's budget woes are well documented. The new superintendent will have to start by deciding just who will be among the dozens to be fired to close the multimillion-dollar budget gap. The next chore will be restoring the district's damaged credibility and beginning to lay the groundwork for the tax increase that is already needed.

Whoever says history doesn't repeat itself hasn't been paying attention to the Columbia Public School District. In 1998, we found ourselves very nearly where we are today. A superintendent hired with high expectations had been forced from office. A budget shortfall loomed after disgruntled voters had turned down a levy increase. Nobody was happy. After a search that extended all the way to south Columbia, the board lured Jim Ritter out of retirement.

I don't suppose that will happen in 2009. We can only hope this lame-duck board is more successful than its recent predecessors have been in choosing the next leader of the community's most important institution.

When I came to town in 1974, Bob Shaw was superintendent. That seemed only natural because he had been in the job 10 years earlier when I left. He had stepped into the shoes of the superintendent who had hired him, Neil Aslin. A couple of years on, when Shaw retired, his long-time assistant, Russell Thompson, took over and reigned for another 18 years.

So we'd had three superintendents over 50 years or so. In the 15 years since  Thompson retired, we've had had six or seven, counting interims and depending on whether you count Jim Ritter once or twice. None of the three we've hired after searches has left happily.

The first of the outsiders was Joel Denney. He actually came in as Thompson's assistant for a year and then won the top job. A year later, the board bought out his contract after allegations of drinking on duty and sexual harassment. That was 1995.

In for a year came co-interim chiefs, Marjorie Spaedy and Skip Deming. They performed admirably, but the board of that era ignored the advice offered by the editor of that other newspaper to hire one of them permanently.

Instead, another national search produced another promising outsider, Russell Mayo. He lasted almost two years. Then the board bought out his contract and let him drive away in the company car. That was 1998.

After the five-year era of goodwill we might call Ritter I, another national search produced another highly rated newcomer, Phyllis Chase. The job offer, she said, reminded her of the day her husband proposed. Both offers "just felt right." In 2008, with hard feelings all around, she retired.

We're about to find out whether the school board has learned from history. One lesson, obviously unlearned, is that secrecy is a bad idea. The unhappy outcomes I've recounted all began behind closed doors. That's where this search has remained, except for disclosures by enterprising reporters, until now. More openness would have allowed for better vetting of the prospects and more opportunity for them to learn about us.

Another lesson, I'd suggest, is that outsiders aren't automatically better. That's been the assumption, and experience calls it into question.

None of the three outsiders had held the top job before. Is this where we want a stranger to learn how to be the boss?

Now the Ritter II era draws to a close. We and our children have a lot riding on the choice this board will make. We probably shouldn't count on a Ritter III.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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