In today’s world, seven minutes is enough time to do a lot of things. Picking someone to head an entire school district isn’t one of them. Still, that was all the time it took for the Kanawha County Board of Education to both cancel a broad search for a new superintendent, and appoint its next one during a meeting Wednesday. Hasty indeed.
In a move that surprised board president Ryan White, longtime board member Jim Crawford made a motion to appoint a new superintendent immediately, without other board members knowing who it would be. After that motion passed, 3-2, Crawford motioned to name six-year Deputy Superintendent Tom Williams as the successor to Ron Duerring, who has headed Kanawha schools for 22 years. That vote also passed, 3-2, giving Williams the position on a one-year contract for $150,000.
Crawford expressed a distrust of outside-the-system hires, saying previous searches that landed such employees as superintendent hadn’t worked out well. What he didn’t seem to consider is that hasn’t happened for more than two decades. Crawford has been on the board for almost 20 years. He has only worked with Duerring as superintendent in that time. As White said, the district has an obligation to look outside its borders to determine who the best person is for the job. Board member Ric Cavender, who, with White, voted against the hire, expressed the concern well when he said, “I think any public agency or any organization should do their due diligence to make sure that no stone has been left unturned.”
Having numerous candidates can generate new ideas, and applicants may have innovative ways for addressing a school district’s needs.
In no way is this an attack on Williams’ credentials. He’s been with the school district for 35 years and certainly knows Kanawha schools inside and out. But, while familiarity is a factor, it shouldn’t be the top priority — nor should convenience. If a national search was conducted and the board found Williams was the best man for the job, that would be different. Crawford’s move, though perhaps not a coup, was rash. Still, he seemed to know board members Becky Jordon and Tracy White would go along with him for a majority vote.
Tracy White’s main concern seemed to be having someone who could work well with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on the construction of a new Herbert Hoover High School and Clendenin Elementary School. Both were heavily damaged in the 2016 flood. Replacement buildings have been long-planned but are yet to be built. The school district faces possible penalties from FEMA as a result.
Perhaps Williams will hit the ground running with FEMA and will be able to navigate those channels before a different applicant could even get their bearings. There’s no question both of those projects are extremely important. But that’s not the only issue the school district faces. If the decision was made on those guidelines alone, it’s short-sighted.
Hopefully Williams will be successful in his new role, and there’s no specific reason to think he won’t. But the school board has shortchanged everyone it serves by not at least looking for other applicants.