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Looking Beyond Educators for Prospective School Superintendents

The state Board of Education begins crafting guidelines for bringing candidates over from the private sector to serve as school superintendents.

Gov. Chris Christie has proposed opening up school superintendent jobs to candidates who are not educators.

Today, weather permitting, the state Board of Education is expected to dig into the details of that proposal, with a preliminary regulation likely to come up for a vote.

As part of a broad package of school reforms, Christie has proposed that the path to being a school superintendent be opened to those in the private sector.

He has targeted the proposal to districts that the administration has deemed underperformers, citing low test scores and monitoring results. According to the latest draft, it would encompass 57 districts in all.

A Pilot Program

After the board raised some initial questions last month, among the key changes would be making the proposal into a pilot program that could expire after five years. In addition, the proposed regulations lay out specific standards as to what would be expected of the candidates.

Still, the board’s president, Arcelio Aponte, said he expected a spirited discussion, especially with the addition of four new board members appointed by Christie. It will also be the first meeting for Christie’s new education commissioner, Chris Cerf.

"I guess there are still some concerns as to what exactly the purpose of this is, what is the context," Aponte said last night. "That’s still not completely clear to board members."

An oft-mentioned possibility for the new proposal is the Newark schools, where the leadership job is soon to be vacant with the departure of superintendent Clifford Janey. Christie has made Newark schools a central focus of his reforms, especially after the $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Allowing non-educators to lead schools districts is not a new notion, and actually was allowed in New Jersey before code was tightened several years ago. Nationally, superintendents in New York City, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Indianapolis have all come from outside the ranks of educators.

"It’s been a pretty steady phenomenon for the last 15 years," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, a national group of 85 large urban districts.

"Since the mid-1990s, it’s ranged from a handful to up to 20 percent of big city superintendents from non-traditional candidates," he said, citing superintendents from the corporate, legal, non-profit and military segments.

Yet Casserly also pointed out there has hardly been a clear consensus on whether they do the job any better than educators.

"They do bring new ideas and new energy and new perspectives and new experiences, and that’s all a good thing," he said. "At the same time, they don’t last any longer on the job or necessarily do any better."

These were among just a few of the questions posed to the administration last month, when the proposal was first put before the state board.

Political or Pedagogical?

While board members said they were open to the idea, several questioned what would be the required standards to become a superintendent and what would protect the hire from being more political than pedagogical.

One board member even joked that he had heard from a friend who runs a restaurant chain about whether he was now qualified to run a school district.

The proposed regulations seek to take into account those concerns, specifying that potential superintendents would have to have demonstrated skills pertinent to the job.

"Specifically, these changes require a candidate and school district to document how the candidate’s experience is relevant to and will support success in key areas of a superintendent’s duties, including staff supervision, local board and community relations, and so on," reads the administration's description that accompanies the proposal

“These criteria will also make the certification decisions less vulnerable to any political pressure," it states.

The final call would rest with the New Jersey education commissioner, although the board would also have a say in the state-operated districts of Newark and Paterson.

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