The Washington County Board of Education is about to embark on the most important decision it's likely to make during the next four years, and that's the selection of a school superintendent to succeed Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, who's retiring next month.
Without question, running a public school system is the most demanding and difficult local public-service position in any community.
In Washington County, you are ultimately responsible for the education each year of about 22,000 students. You have to feed many of them twice a day, and oversee a transportation system that takes them to and from school. You are the boss of more than 1,700 teachers, and more than 1,200 other administrators and support staff. You oversee athletic and music programs from Boonsboro to Hancock. It's your job to make sure that 45 schools — soon to be 46 with Ruth Ann Monroe Primary — are heated in winter, cooled in spring and fall, and generally in good condition. And that's but a partial job description.
And while you're doing all that, you have thousands of teachers and parents making demands, taking potshots, and second-guessing many of your decisions, often in the newspaper or on the Internet.
Morgan was a visionary and a doer.
She brought new ideas to our public education system, and the ideas became reality. She learned how to work with local and state political movers and shakers to the school system's advantage. From the school system's first magnet school to Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, she forced our citizenry to take note of our public school system.
In the coming years, educating our young people will only take on more and more importance. They'll have to leave high school with skills in math, science and writing far above today's norms to compete with students not just in their own neighborhood, but around the world.
So what should we be looking for in a new superintendent?
A leader, not a manager. We need someone who is smart and tough, and whose confidence stems not from unearned arrogance but of accomplishment and success. The person must have extraordinary communication and people skills. A superintendent must be able to talk clearly and honestly with the public, be able to outline his/her vision, and effectively lobby state and local politicians for the funds to make the vision a reality. Involvement with higher education and business communities are a must.
Most important, he/she must never lose sight of the fact that it's the student who is the customer of the school system's services, not teachers, administrators or parents. If you're not trying to provide the best education possible to the young minds of our county, and that's the No. 1 goal, you're not the person for the job.
Finally, when school board members believe they have found that person, they should set the bar high, hold the person accountable, and pay him or her whatever it takes to lead our school system.
The Washington County public school system has made big strides during the past few years.
Now more than ever, we need to ensure that the momentum continues.
And it starts with the person at the top.