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Run This School System

The Albany School Board prepares for the challenge of selecting a new superintendent

by Darryl McGrath on May 10, 2012

The selection of a superintendent is the most arduous task any school board faces, and so it is with optimism and also some trepidation that the Albany School Board gets ready to meet the candidates.

Twenty-six people applied, the majority of whom are already K-12 educators or administrators. Eleven of the candidates come from higher education or other professions, including one lawyer. The school board has not disclosed how many candidates come from within the Albany district, if any, nor how many of the 26 applicants will make the first cut for an interview with board members.

“I think the challenge in Albany is really political more than anything, and that’s a skill the new superintendent has to have,” said board President Dan Egan. “I do worry about that—whoever comes in has to have the political savvy to stay engaged with everybody, no matter what.”

Parents, students and other residents have already made clear that their preference is an experienced educator. In advertising the position, the district published on its website a “candidate profile” that summarized the qualities Albany residents consider most important in their next superintendent. The district solicited public comment for that profile through a widely distributed survey and also at six community forums, which drew hundreds of responses.

High up on that profile: “An experienced educator who understands the strengths and challenges of an urban school district, welcomes innovative learning strategies and commits to advancing academic excellence and high expectations for all of our students.”

“I think the community forums were a real key part of this, because we were able to hear from people in different neighborhoods in Albany,” said Charles Dedrick, district superintendent of the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), who is leading the search.

Semifinalists will go through a round of interviews with residents and community leaders, not just the board members, and the members of the public selected to participate in those interviews will submit a report to the board. The new superintendent is expected to start in late July.

Around the issue of what residents expect to find in their schools chief is the equally important consideration of what the new superintendent will face in Albany. The short answer: Budget cuts that have shredded services and staff levels; the looming presence of 10 charter schools; and the ever-present perception that the district consists of two groups of students: those from more advantaged middle- and upper-middle class homes, and those from the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Add to these issues the fact that every member of the school board is still in his or her first term, and institutional memory is in short supply.

The budget, at least, will be decided well before the superintendent begins. Voters will be asked to approve a $207.7 million proposal Tuesday (May 15) with a 1.5-percent increase in the tax levy, as well as the proposed sale of two district buildings. The district has two chances to get the budget approved before it would go to contingency plan with an automatic $1.6 million cut—a “devastating” last resort that Egan said would require cutting dozens of jobs. In a year when every vote counts, school board members just hope that residents find their way to the polls, as redistricting means that some voters have a newly assigned polling place. (Find your polling place at the Albany City Schools website at www.albanyschools.org.)

There isn’t much the district can do about state funding cuts—$10 million the last four years—but Egan said the board has tried to address the political strife that has historically marked the Albany school system.

“I think morale is a little better,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of internal work to make the organization run better.”

Departing Superintendent Raymond Colucciello—who came in as an interim appointment in 2009 and was named permanently to the job a year later—got generally high marks for navigating the highly charged atmosphere that came with the job. His predecessor Eva Joseph ended her tenure by with a visibly hunkered-down air of exasperation.

Given the recent history in the district and the long list of problems facing any urban school system, Dedrick is going to recommend that the board start out slowly with whomever is hired. Candidates often claim that they effected positive changes in their last jobs, Dedrick noted; the task at hand in Albany is to not only verify those claims, but to make sure that candidate can pull off a repeat performance here.

Said Dedrick, “My advice to [the board] would be a three-year contract, unless someone is out-of-the-box terrific.”