by Christopher Paslay
The Philadelphia School District can call off its elaborate search for the next superintendent. The best person for the job is sitting right under our nose, and his name is Phil Goldsmith.
The Philadelphia School District has officially started its search for a new superintendent, and the token ritual of “making public voices heard” has begun. For the next three weeks, at various locations around the city, citizens have the opportunity to tell the School Reform Commission the leadership characteristics they feel the next superintendent of city schools should possess. These public forums are being sponsored by the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, in partnership with the Penn Project for Civic Engagement. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has also invited its members to take a superintendent search survey on the PFT website.
This gesture—giving teachers and taxpayers a voice in the selection process—is kind, but for all intents and purposes, worthless. The general population has as much say in hiring a superintendent as school children do in designing curriculum; allowing citizens a so-called “voice” is a public relations tactic to make a very undemocratic process appear democratic.
But I’m not writing this to advocate democracy or transparency. I’m writing to tell everyone—the District, the city, the PFT—to save it. Save the elaborate search process for a time when it is warranted. The next superintendent of the Philadelphia School District is sitting right under our noses, and his name is Phil Goldsmith.
For the record, I don’t know if Goldsmith has even considered applying for the job, but he should. He’s by far the best fit for the position, and I have yet to hear of another person who can come close to matching Goldsmith’s vision, knowledge, and expertise when it comes to the city of Philadelphia and it public schools. Here’s why:
He’s a local with experience
Goldsmith was the interim CEO of the Philadelphia School District in 2001, and is a former managing director of the city. In essence, Goldsmith already knows the inner workings of the District and city, so there would be no need to waste time or money on getting him “oriented” or established, of setting up costly “transition teams,” of getting acquainted with the teachers union or other local politicians. Likewise, taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay to have him relocated as would be the case if the District hired an outsider.
He’s a leader with values
As Goldsmith wrote in a commentary for the Notebook about school district leadership, “What really matters is the quality, expertise, character, and courage of the people who serve. They need expertise in overseeing a vast governmental organization, the willingness and smarts to ask tough questions, the courage to speak truth to power, and a deep commitment to the mission of public education.” Goldsmith also stated that there are four primary functions of a body governing a school district: Fiscal stewardship, leadership, integrity, and fairness.
Goldsmith also advocates local control—that the state should relinquish power of the District—and believes that citizens and taxpayers should have a stronger say in the workings of their schools.
He has common sense with dollars and cents
Goldsmith wrote about the Philadelphia School District’s impending financial crisis months before it became reality. In a July 2010 Daily News article, Goldsmith criticized superintendent Arlene Ackerman for bringing in high-priced administrators in light of the “fiscal tsunami” looming ahead for the District:
“The federal stimulus money the district has been relying on for operations will soon disappear, tax revenues remain weak, the state’s educational budget is smaller than anticipated, and Gov. Rendell, who has been generous to the school district and education in general, will be leaving office in five months. And yet, administrative salaries at the district, which have gone up since the state takeover in 2002, continue to rise under Ackerman. . . .”
In a Daily News column in June of 2011, when the extent and magnitude of the Philadelphia School District’s deficit became public, Goldsmith detailed how the oversight of District finances should become a priority:
“. . . whatever taxes are raised should not go directly to the district. The money should go into a dedicated education fund that the city can allocate to the district once it meets certain criteria and answers specific questions and a legitimate oversight process is ensured. Should the district be expanding programs like Renaissance Schools before there is credible evidence that those schools are producing the desired results? How is money being spent, department-by-department? What are the staffing levels compared with comparable school districts? And salary levels, for that matter?”
He understands the complexities of school safety
When it comes to school violence, Goldsmith can think outside the box:
“Schools don’t manufacture guns or produce and sell drugs,” Goldsmith wrote in an article for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, “they don’t make violent movies or television shows, write misogynist or violent lyrics to rap music or create single-parent homes with high unemployment. And yet, we expect our teachers, principals and administrators to right the wrongs of society. It simply isn’t going to happen. There are many things a school district can and must do to fight violence: It needs to maintain accurate records, report incidents to the appropriate people and provide a safe learning and teaching environment. But by focusing solely on the school district, we absolve others of responsibility: Parents who aren’t providing—or aren’t capable of providing—proper parenting; faith-based leaders who may have to do more to step into the parental and spiritual breach; corporate leaders who, with advertising dollars, support some of the violent programs on television; politicians who reach for quick sound bites rather than explore substantive solutions.”
Does the district want a solution?
Unlike Arlene Ackerman, Phil Goldsmith is not a mindless yes-man who can be manipulated by money and politics. He’s a free thinker whose ideas sometimes run counter to education trends and what has come to be known as the “national reform model”. This could very well pose a problem for those in charge. The recent overhaul of the District’s leadership, along with the signing of the Gate’s Compact, suggests Philadelphia’ power structure is more interested in dismantling the Philadelphia public school system rather than trying to fix it from within. It has become clear that the goal of the District is expedited privatization, and the dividing-up of all the resources that go along with it.
But while there’s still a public school system left to run, Goldsmith is the man to do it. Here’s to hoping he’ll officially apply for the job, and that if he does, the District will have enough wisdom to take him on.