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Board's search was far too secretive

October 17, 1997

A school chief who has problems getting along with his employees.

A school chief whose visions of education are more than the community is ready to accept.

A school chief who has problems communicating gently.

A school chief of numerous accomplishments, who is still widely disliked.

A school chief who is single-minded in the pursuit of educational excellence - strong headed, convinced in the correctness of his actions, and accused of not listening to opposing views.

I'm speaking, of course, of former Shepherd College (W.Va.) president Michael P. Riccards, who was basically run out of town a couple years back.

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I happened to think Riccards was one of the best things to ever happen to Shepherd College, a view feverishly disputed by a number of professors who worked there and made sure I received plenty of documentation in support of their position.

In short, they said, if you believed in the same goals and same definition of progress in education as he, you got along fine; if you dared differ you were trampled. It wasn't as if "constructive criticism" was a working part of his vocabulary.

If press clippings can be believed, some may notice a few parallels as well with Washington County's new superintendent Herman Bartlett. - assuming you are the type of a person who does not consider being compared with a Hitler a compliment.

On his last job, Bartlett arrived for his interview in Blacksburg during the Blizzard of '93, which in retrospect was a fairly apt metaphor for his tenure in the southwest Virginia town.

By the end of four years he had succeeded in annoying the educational trifecta of parents, teachers and board members - who voted 8-1 to end the relationship by the end of June.

This wasn't all that atypical of Montgomery County board members, who have divorced more companions than Larry King. If relations between Bartlett and the county were stormy, it seems fair to conclude that the board probably deserved its share of the blame.

History is chock-full of brilliant individuals who were shown the door because they were intolerant of people who did not share their vision. Is Bartlett such an individual? Time will tell; and certainly he should be given the chance to prove his abilities.

But there's something uncomfortable here, something that has less to do with Bartlett than the Washington County Board of Education - and that is the way this search was conducted, under a dark cloak of secrecy.

More than 15 years ago I remember West Virginia University was seeking a new president. Four finalists were identified, then they were called in to give several talks to students, faculty, classified employees and the community. They shared their ideas with everyone and answered questions from anyone who cared enough to ask.

From that group we were able to land Gordon Gee, the illustrious academic who later went on to the presidency of Ohio State and will be the next leader of Brown University.

Much more recently Durham, N.C., was seeking a new superintendent. The finalists were named and The Durham Sun did a lengthy profile on each. People in the community got a clear sense of what the options were.

Not so here in Secretville U.S.A., where the board would not even accept an offer of help by respected members of the business community. And release the names of the finalists for public inspection? Pshaw.

This actually helps the new superintendent. Because the board of education HAS to get along with him now, no matter how abrasive he may be. Not to do so - after failing to learn of the warning flags - would make the board look like the five silliest gooses south of the county administration building.

Board members said Thursday that a consultant told them to keep the search secret. Consultants routinely accept thousands of dollars in exchange for bad advice.

I'm sure the board worked hard and very possibly got the best person for the job. But there's plenty of evidence of inadequate background research. The Washington County board didn't contact the president of the Montgomery board or the president of the teacher association. It didn't even go all the way to Blacksburg, perhaps the first education-related trip Marie Byers, whom I love dearly, has turned down since '71. The board also didn't know that Bartlett had been rejected for a contract extension in Montgomery County three times.

We all deserved a closer look than what the board was willing to invest on its own.

As much as the superintendent is an employee of the board, he is an employee of the people of Washington County. Parents, teachers, classified employees and everyone with an interest in education have to wonder why the board chose to keep them in the dark on a decision so crucial to their futures and the futures of their children. "A consultant told us," isn't good enough.

Neither is this fair to Bartlett himself since - because of the board's highly suspect selection process - he's going to be under a microscope from day one.

Nevertheless, we welcome the new superintendent into the community and wish him the best of success. No school system is ever easy, and this one will be no exception. But hopefully we've landed someone like Riccards, only maybe a version who has been able to sand down a gritty edge or two.

One final, small bit of advice, Mr. Bartlett. Should someone offer you a whirlpool, run.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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