Dick Hammerstrom, a local news editor at The Free Lance-Star, is an advocate for open government and serves on  several statewide organizations that urge transparency.

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Stafford could have involved the public in picking superintendent

In two Virginia localities last week, school boards made decisions on school superintendents that may determine the quality of education in those areas for the foreseeable future.

But the two school boards-—in Richmond and Stafford County—-took different approaches to the process.

In Richmond, parents, teachers and school administrators had a chance to meet the three finalists for the job and hear their responses to the public’s questions.

In Stafford, it appears that only the school board members met and questioned the finalists for the job. The board never acknowledged who the finalists were and the other educational stakeholders in the county remained unaware until the new superintendent was introduced.

W. Bruce Benson, a school superintendent on the Eastern Shore, may prove to be an excellent leader for Stafford schools. Let’s hope so.

But I can’t help but believe that the educational stakeholders—students, parents, teachers and business leaders in the county—would have liked to meet Benson and the other finalists before the selection was made. I’m sure they’d like to have asked about educational philosophies, the value of student testing and the validity of teacher evaluations.

By implementing a more open process, the school board would not be abdicating its decision-making authority, but would create an expanded opportunity to hear more voices asking questions and more responses from the candidates.

Stafford’s school board did ask residents of the county to express what qualities they wanted in a superintendent. That’s a good start. But those same residents should have had a chance to question finalists about those qualities, which would allow the school board to evaluate their responses.

In Richmond, the three finalists each answered questions for an hour and the school board placed weight on how they responded.

“This is what we wanted to see,” said Jeffrey Bourne, chairman of the Richmond School Board, according to a report in the Richmond Times Dispatch. “We wanted to watch how the candidates reacted in a variety of different environments.”

In recent weeks, Newport News involved the public in selection process for a new police chief. The finalists for the position were interviewed and questioned by several groups, including a session attended by interested city residents.

Let’s hope the approaches taken in Newport News and Richmond are the start of a trend in Virginia. The constituents of these localities are the ones who pay the bills and will thrive—or suffer—from the decisions made.


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