Cheatham

Madison schools superintendent finalist Jennifer Cheatham addresses a forum on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, at Monona Terrace.

The only thing more unsettling than the haphazard approach of the search firm hired to identify a new superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District was the disengaged response of School Board members to the mess that’s been made of the search.

It was the decision of the board to conduct a “national search,” despite the fact that the district is rich with talent — with plenty of internal prospects far abler than the names that the search firm came up with.

And when the search blew up — with one of two finalists withdrawing after unsettling revelations regarding his troubles in previous positions — board members suggested that if the remaining candidate proved to be acceptable, all would be well.

No, all is not well. The search is a shambles.

Leslie Ann Howard, the president of the United Way of Dane County, summed up the concern of the community when she told the Wisconsin State Journal's Matthew DeFour: “It’s disappointing the search firm could not vet viable candidates for our School Board. It really puts in question the search firm’s process.”

The remaining candidate, Jennifer Cheatham, who currently serves as the chief of instruction for the Chicago Public Schools, was quickly offered the superintendent job. She has impressive academic credentials, including a bachelor’s degree from DePaul University in Chicago and graduate degrees from the University of Michigan and Harvard University. Concerns have been raised in Chicago about her tenure of as a top school district official, especially with regard to her role in making decisions and taking actions that exacerbated tensions before last year’s strike by teachers.

When Cheatham visited Madison Thursday, she provided sound responses to pointed questioning about those concerns and we were impressed with her.

That being the case, Cheatham would come to this position in a difficult circumstance. As Kaleem Caire, the president of the Urban League of Greater Madison, told the State Journal: “The perception of people in this community when we have one pick, they will always question the value of this woman. That’s not fair to her and not fair to our kids.”

The School Board has presided over a fiasco that board member Ed Hughes admits — in a major understatement — “has not gone as smoothly as we’d like.”

Now the board needs to get its act together.

If would be good if the board were to seek the return of the more than $30,000 in taxpayer money that was allocated for what can only charitably be referred to as a “search.” However, we don’t want the board to squander more tax money on extended legal wrangling.

The board should make it clear that it will not have further dealings with this search firm, as the firm’s vetting of applicants does not meet the basic standards that a responsible board should expect.

Perhaps most importantly, the board should engage in a serious rethink of its approach to searches for top administrators. The Madison Metropolitan School District is a great urban school district. It has challenges, especially with regard to achievement gaps and the overuse of standardized testing, that must be addressed.

But the district also has a remarkable staff that includes many skilled educators and administrators who have been in the forefront of encouraging reforms and actions that sustain public education while embracing the need to innovate. This School Board should be far more focused on preparing current employees — who know and care about the district — to be leaders. In particular, focus can and should be placed on recruiting lower-level administrators, especially women and people of color, who can come up through the ranks. And those lower-level administrators should be listened to and respected for the contributions they can make along the way — contributions that might identify them as superintendent prospects.

Then, perhaps, Madison will be able to avoid the embarrassment of future national searches that turn into fiascos. 

Editor's note: This editorial has been updated.

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