Dr. Mary Brown may have been the best candidate to implement the upcoming merger of the Greenwood and Leflore County school districts.
There’s no way to be certain about that, however, because the search that resulted in her hiring as superintendent was done in secret. There was no disclosure by the consolidated school board of the candidates it was considering, not even its finalists, and no solicitation of public input as to the choice.
The probable reason the board would give for such secrecy is that disclosing the names of the candidates might have jeopardized their jobs if their current employers heard they were looking for work elsewhere. It’s the same poor argument Mississippi’s College Board has been using for years when conducting its top-secret searches for university presidents. Yet there’s no evidence that the College Board’s hiring success has been any better — I would argue it’s been worse — than when it used a more open process.
We also know the argument for secrecy certainly didn’t apply to Brown, as her current employer and her future employer are mostly the same people. Nor did it apply to another internal candidate, Dr. Jennifer Wilson, who has been Brown’s boss for the past 2½ years.
Brown’s elevation is going to be awkward, at least at first, and not only because she leapfrogged Wilson. Brown knows that her selection was not unanimous, with one school board member believing there was a better choice out there. But the biggest difficulty Brown’s going to face is being the supervisor — assuming some of the current Greenwood administration stays on when the districts consolidate — of employees who never reported to her before.
Promoting internally, as the school board has chosen to do in selecting Brown, has some advantages. She is a known commodity, so there shouldn’t be many surprises. And if she has done a good job in the past and the people with whom she has worked respect her, they are more likely to trust her leadership.
But there are some pitfalls, too, especially with the challenge Brown faces in figuring out how to best merge the two districts. If this consolidation is done correctly, some jobs — for certain in administration and possibly in the classroom — should be eliminated. Also, some schools should be closed, and their students and staff moved to other facilities.
Ultimately, the school board will make these decisions. Unless the board members are micromanagers, though, they are going to be looking to Brown to provide the guidance as to whom to hire and what facilities to shutter.
These are tough calls because people’s jobs and school loyalties are at stake. They are made even harder if those evaluating the people and processes have their vision clouded by the emotional ties that inevitably form after working with someone or at a certain place for a while. You may in your gut know what changes need to be made, but you balk at making them because of all the personal connections that get in the way.
If you’ve got a closet that needs cleaning out, it’s often better to get someone to do it who didn’t help put all that stuff in the closet.
Mary Brown’s greatest strength is that she already thoroughly knows the Greenwood and Leflore County schools. She attended them, graduated from them, taught in them, was a principal in them and has worked in one of their central offices.
It’s also going to be her greatest weakness.
One of her first orders of business should be to recommend reducing the number of high schools in Leflore County from three to two. But will she do it, as a product of one of those three schools?
She’s also going to inherit too many administrative staffers when the two districts are combined. She’s going to have some weak administrators and some weak teachers, because if they were all strong, the Leflore County district would not be under state control and the Greenwood district would not have a subpar accountability grade from the state. Some of the people who need to go Brown has worked with or for in the past. Will she have the backbone to eliminate their jobs or replace them? Or will she roll along, creating unnecessary jobs and accepting mediocrity because of the difficulty of recruiting talent or because some of the weak links are personally or politically connected?
In an interview with this newspaper on the day she was hired in her new job, Brown said, “I’m going to always do what’s right, and sometimes that’s not popular, but I have a duty to do what’s right by the students and the district.”
Those are strong words. Let’s hope she can live up to them.
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or email@example.com.