Superintendent Dr. Wendy Webb’s announcement last week that she will be retiring on Jan. 1, 2011, seven months before the expiration of her contract, caught the Youngstown Board of Education by surprise. But, viewed objectively, Webb’s decision is in the best interest of the financially and academically embattled school system.
The district has been in fiscal emergency since 2006 and has been in academic emergency since late last year. It has the distinction of being the worst academic performing system in the state of Ohio.
As a result, there are two commissions overseeing the district’s operation: the first, guiding its fiscal recovery; the second, developing an academic blueprint to improve Youngstown’s “F” grade.
Webb has been superintendent since 2004, which means she bears responsibility for the district’s collapse. Indeed, last December, school board President Anthony Catale said that while the school board hadn’t discussed firing Webb, “I’m not going to take that off the table.” His comments were made in the context of the board’s annual evaluation of Webb, which said the designation of academic emergency “is unacceptable and considerable strides [toward] an improvement designation must be made.”
Dr. Webb’s decision to retire not only spares her the indignity of being terminated by the board if she failed to meet the performance standards established last year, but it opens the door to a national search for a successor.
As a first step, Catale should meet with Scott Schulick, president of the Youngstown State University board of trustees, who organized and directed the search for a successor to YSU President Dr. David Sweet.
The key ingredient in the search was a 25-member screening committee that was made up of several trustees, other university officials and business and community leaders. In addition, a paid consultant was invaluable not only in developing the specifications for the job and putting together a national advertising campaign, but also in conducting the background reviews and helping to whittle the applications down to a manageable number. The ultimate decision was made by the board of trustees from four finalists.
The Board of Education should also use the two state commissions as resources in establishing the criteria for the next superintendent.
When Webb was hired in 2004, the argument was made that having someone from Youngstown with roots in the school system was necessary given the challenges confronting the urban school district.
Now, however, the system needs a superintendent with creativity and experience in turning around a failing urban school district.
Webb has given the school board a gift of time to conduct a thorough search. Members should not squander the opportunity. Hiring the wrong person as superintendent will almost guarantee the district’s demise.