A month into Fairfax County's superintendent search community input process, a picture of what Fairfax County Public Schools next leader could look like is taking shape: someone who focuses on visibility and engagement, has a good business sense and can navigate the system through difficult budget seasons.
Thousands of residents, staff and administrators have weighed in on the system's strengths and challenges and what characteristics will be key for the next leader of one of the country's largest school systems, —the search firm hired by the board this fall—told school board members Thursday night.
The consultants held 56 sessions with stakeholders to gather input over the past four weeks. Another 1,433 people submitted online surveys.
The input process is far from over yet—after the school board defines the draft list of desired characteristics, that draft will be sent back to staff and the community in meetings Jan. 14 and 15—but the search firm presented an early community consensus to board members Thursday.
Among the system's strengths, respondents said: academic performance, breadth and depth of programming, a highly educated community, availability of resources and the quality of the people working in the system.
"There are parents and community leaders who want us to challenge the student. I’m glad that’s there, because it is a very important piece," Janie Strauss (Dranesville) said.
Among its challenges and issues: more authentic engagement and communication, budget woes, staying competitive academically and educating the whole student, staff morale and "numerous comments about points of learning from other systems that have gone through similar situations."
School board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said "we have a lot of initiatives and our employees said that has made a huge impact on our morale."
Given that feedback, respondents overwhelmingly hoped for a candidate who valued and excelled at communication and transparency and community engagement, fiscal and operational management and strong leadership.
There was also a large number of respondents who wanted a leader who could address the system's growing special education needs.
Some of the feedback dealt specifically with the leadership of specifically: Some respondents felt he was not visible enough in the community—"the superintendent should maintain grass roots connections with teachers, students and administrators through regular visits to school sites and conversations with those in the trenches (as [the former superintendent] did)," wrote one administrator.
"I feel like we’re spending a lot of time with the community engagement piece and not as much on the educational skill set," board member Kathy Smith (Sully) said after the presentation.
Another felt "the current leadership team continues to 'push down' initiatives and places more and more stress on teachers. We need a superintendent that will establish priorities and know when to say 'NO....not this year.'"
"Take a lesson from Montgomery County school superintendent. Be less of a politician and more of an educator," a community member wrote.
Tamara Derenak Kaufax (Lee) said one thing absent from the profile was "being a good business manager, the ability to be a macro manager," she said. "Someone who can work with a large staff and also build a strong team."
Consultants said business management skills often came up in conversations with staff and the community; "it was often described as an individual who’s capable of working well with county supervisors; being an advocate and voice for all children in the system," they said.
Ryan McElveen (at-large) said he agreed with Smith's concerns about the apparent absence of emphasis on someone who has a background in education best practices.
"I always cringe at the term customer-focused. Our students and parents are not customers," McElveen said.
Consultants are taking board feedback and its community reports to put together a draft leadership profile by the time students return from the holiday break. The online survey will stay open until Jan. 23
“I think what I was hoping to capture that the key is collaborative leadership style," McLaughlin said. “We want a superintendent who can work with different stakeholders and really find solutions.”
For the consultants' full community input summaries, click the PDFS and reports in the media player at right.
Community Forums Scheduled for Superintendent Search
Board Lays Early Plan for Superintendent Search
Editor's Note: Previously, the above article stated that the online surveys were the same as the surveys provided during in-person meetings. These surveys were similar, but not the same.