Post-game analysis on commissioner search communications
Kentucky School Advocate
By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support/Communications Services
Assuming all goes as planned, Dr. Stephen Pruitt is about to take over the coaching duties of Kentucky’s elementary and secondary education team as he becomes the state’s sixth commissioner of education.
The former Georgia high school track and field coach has spent the last several years helping states craft Common Core academic standards for a Washington, D.C., nonprofit. His career record from the classroom to high positions in his home state’s department of education, as well as endorsements by former Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit and others, suggest the Kentucky Board of Education scored a touchdown with his selection.
But this is a column on communicating and what school leaders can learn in that area. All school board members and superintendents potentially face a very public personnel search during the school chief’s tenure. While the outcome of the commissioner search looks to be a winner, some valid questions can be explored regarding the communications of that process.
Nothing that follows is a criticism of KBE members, KDE staff or the consultants. They played their roles as they saw best. I hope my years covering news and helping communicate about superintendent searches may provide some thoughts for district decision makers.
A pair of puzzle points
Journalists and educators alike pondered why the KBE, after identifying five individuals barely 24 hours before the start of closed door, face-to-face interviews, then chose a) not to identify Pruitt and Dr. Christopher Koch of Illinois as the last final candidates but b) encouraged reporters to ask the five about their status.
Was it because there might be some heat over the last round of cuts eliminating the lone in-state, African-American and female applicants in the field of five? Was it to preserve the full field in case the deep background checks – or other external vetting – on Koch and Pruitt turned up something the consultants and KBE weren’t aware of (as in the case of the ill-fated Barbara Erwin hiring in 2007)? Was it to avoid drawing attention too early to the professional ties of Koch to Wilhoit and fellow former Commissioner Terry Holliday or to Pruitt’s work on the somewhat controversial state science standards? Or was it just a smart search call by the KBE doing its job and listening to its advisors?
Another enigma was the lack of applicant field information released by KDE during the search. A fairly standard element of KSBA superintendent searches is to release data on how many sought the job, demographics of the pool, if there are sitting superintendents applying and other data points. This isn’t made public if the client – the board – is opposed, but such information could only have added to the KBE search’s credibility.
Many groups and individuals encouraged the hiring of a Kentuckian to become commissioner. At the end, for all anyone – beyond the KBE and its advisors – knew, final-five finalist and Eminence Independent Schools Superintendent Buddy Berry was the only Kentucky applicant. I’m told that was not the case, but those numbers could have reaffirmed KBE’s commitment to encouraging all comers. Or would releasing that information have fueled the passions of those who felt the job should go to someone other than an out-of-state, white male?
The Last Word
As I hope I’ve made clear above, these questions don’t go to the validity of the process. I’m not qualified in that arena, but further, I know enough about KBE leadership to be confident they went into and came out of the process with one goal – finding the most capable leader to become the chief advocate for advancing public education in this state. And they were advised by consultants and KDE staff who kept the focus on release of accurate information and confidentiality of process.
But for the high position of commissioner of education – or superintendent – a little more disclosure of information that shouldn’t threaten the sanctity of the search process is worth contemplation.
And that’s a message worth getting out.