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Dec. 16, 2010

The leading question

This article was written by the Silver Chips Print Editorial Board and is intended to represent the official views of the newspaper.

The hallmark of a legitimate, functioning democracy is generally considered to be a fair, enduring voting process, in which the people’s wishes translate directly to electoral results. Consecutive peaceful transfers of power are often a good indicator that stability is reigning and that the citizens can breathe a little easier.

MCPS is not a full democracy, but neither should it be. Superintendent Jerry Weast’s departure next summer from his powerful Rockville perch will mark the end of a 12-year era, during which county residents have never chosen whether to retain their schools’ leader. That’s to be expected; subjecting a schools superintendent to the whims of his electorate is neither practical nor prudent, especially in a school system as large, diverse and prominent as ours.

But as the Board of Education (BOE) gets underway in its process to select Dr. Weast’s successor, transparency and community involvement must be key considerations. Early stages have not been as promising as might be desired, but the BOE’s plans for the future show signs of an admirable commitment to public input. The BOE should maintain and expand those ideas in order to establish as smooth a transition as possible for the incoming superintendent.

]That process got off to a rocky beginning with the BOE’s Nov. 19 meeting, conducted to discuss the hiring of a search firm – announced Dec. 7 as Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates (HYA) – to lead the selection procedure, which was closed to the public. There are certainly confidential personnel matters for which the BOE has a right to privacy, but this was not one of them. Involving MCPS students and parents at each major step of the way provides new perspectives, which is both good form and a crucial avenue to diversify and sharpen the search criteria. The problem is self-perpetuating: Public engagement during this earliest step might have allowed citizens to ensure greater accountability further down the line. However, HYA has promised significant public involvement, according to BOE member Judy Docca (Dist. 1).

Openness also goes a long way toward alleviating community-administration tensions. Dr. Weast’s overbearing style achieved results, including levels of minority performance on AP exams that are higher than ever, but there’s no denying that his removed public persona alienated many as well. In the wake of his tenure, stronger outreach from MCPS officials would be a helpful improvement.

The Nov. 19 initial meeting, however, was just that – an initial meeting. We hope it’s not indicative of an unwillingness to open up. It is inarguable that public oversight of a public process produces better results, if only because it sets an example of a large school district committing to democratic change.

With the impending launch of a separate superintendent search website, the MCPS administration will take the first step in providing forums for real community involvement. A website is little more than aesthetic, but it’s a sign of better things to come. According to MCPS spokeswoman Lesli Maxwell, direct engagement will commence once the process reconvenes in January after winter break. Specifics are scant, but BOE President Christopher Barclay and his colleagues would be wise to consider students’ and teachers’ suggestions before specific candidates are considered, and after the field narrows. Open meetings and access to BOE members are essential.

Such moves, of course, would necessarily entail community follow-through. We have responsibilities to ensure the efficacy of MCPS administration for the next several years – as many as 12, if Dr. Weast’s successor has a similar capacity for endurance. Blazers, get involved early and often: This is the person who will control significant aspects of your school life. Apathy can’t be an option.

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