Our View: Hire carefully

Our View: Hire carefully
(File Photo)

It’s been a seller’s market for more than a year, both in real estate and in the realm of employment.

Buyers in hot real estate markets have engaged in bidding wars for desirable properties, sometimes devising clever ways to stand out from other bidders. Likewise in the job sector, where signing bonuses have long been a staple of white-collar jobs but are now being offered by many restaurants and for warehouse work. And just to be clear, in employment it’s the worker who’s the seller: their time and services are for sale to prospective public or private sector employers.

Two pieces in this week’s Alexandria Times touch on interesting aspects of making important hires in a seller’s market.

Our page one story, “School Board appoints interim superintendent,” discusses the hiring of Melanie Kay-Wyatt, Ed.D. as interim superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, while columnist Mark Eaton, a former Alexandria School Board member, considers myths surrounding effective hiring in the public sector.

One key takeaway from converging these stories is that the hiring of a permanent superintendent of ACPS – to the second-most important public sector job in Alexandria after the city manager – is no easy task.

Kay-Wyatt is, in many ways, an unusual choice for interim superintendent. Interims, whether in churches, corporations or the public sector, tend to either be extremely experienced, otherwise retired people from their field who step back in to run an organization for a short period of time or long-time assistants who are deeply familiar with the culture and history of their organization.

Lois Berlin, Ed.D., who served as interim superintendent between the departure of Alvin Crawley, Ed.D. and the hiring of Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., ACPS’ current superintendent, is an example of the former. This is also the norm in many churches as they seek a permanent pastor.

The second model was followed in the past few years when Alexandria’s current fire and police chiefs, Corey Smedley and Don Hayes, were first promoted to interim head of their department following the resignation of their predecessors and then named permanent chief. Promoting an existing employee as interim head, both in the public and private sectors, often allows that person to audition for the top job.

Kay-Wyatt fits neither mold. She’s not a grizzled industry veteran with years of experience as a superintendent, nor is she a long-time ACPS employee steeped in our district’s past accomplishments and ongoing challenges.

This is not to say she won’t be effective. As Eaton points out in his column, “The ideal interim appointment is someone who tries out successfully for the permanent job.” It would be best for our city’s children – and parents, teachers and taxpayers – if Kay-Wyatt both merits and wants the permanent job.

But we see a couple of significant yellow flags, to use a racing metaphor:

• Kay-Wyatt inherits a school system in crisis. An ACPS student was murdered in a gang fight 10 days before graduation this spring. Another student was allegedly the victim of a sexual assault in October 2021. Our schools are, simply put, not safe right now – and the biggest danger is from within. Learning can’t happen until our schools are made safe, and the solution is going to involve unglamorous, roll-up-your-sleeves hard work on building processes and rebuilding trust.

• Our school system, like our police department, is losing staff at an alarming rate. One parent on the Open ACPS Facebook page lamented what they saw as a disregard by Kay-Wyatt toward retaining existing staff in favor of bringing in new hires. While excessive turnover necessitates increased hiring, retaining long-time staff members who have served our city’s schools well for years and provide institutional memory should also be prioritized.

Hiring is never an easy task. The stakes are much higher the further up an organization’s leadership chart you go. It’s essential that for ACPS superintendent, the permanent hire is done with great care.