Suddenly, the choice for Phila. schools is down to just two

It's easy to see how some Philadelphians may feel left out of the school superintendent search. It's also easy to appreciate the urgency to fill the position.


The sudden announcement that the candidates' list of more than 100 names had been whittled down to two, and that a new superintendent could be chosen as early as Friday, caught many by surprise.



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The candidates, Pedro Martinez, deputy superintendent in Clark County, Nev., and William Hite, head of the Prince George's County, Md., school system, made whirlwind rounds this week meeting teachers, parents, students and city officials.


The School Reform Commission hopes to have a superintendent in place by July 1, which makes good sense. It would allow the new CEO to take charge and make crucial decisions before the start of the 2012-13 school year.


Some critics wanted more time allotted for the community, an important part of the process, to weigh in. During the last such search in 2008, the field was narrowed to three and Arlene C. Ackerman was given the job a month later.


The School Reform Commission understandably is moving briskly. The district could not remain in limbo indefinitely, and delaying the selection would risk more instability in a system plagued by poor test scores, a high dropout rate, and violence.


SRC Commissioner Wendell Pritchett, who heads the search committee, defended the process, and said with 16 community meetings, there was "a hell of a lot of public engagement."


The commission must now hire the right leader in one of the most tumultuous times in district history. Ackerman left abruptly in August after repeated public clashes with the SRC.


Since then, the SRC has devised a plan to drastically restructure the school system and erase a debt of at least $218 million, possibly more for the next school year.


The next CEO must have some fundamental qualities to avoid the pitfalls that derailed Ackerman. He must work cooperatively with the SRC and gain the confidence of both teachers and administrators.


He must also navigate the choppy political waters in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, which hold the purse strings for the district.


In Martinez and Hite, the SRC has two well-qualified candidates. Martinez previously was chief financial officer of Chicago schools under now-Education Secretary Arne Duncan. A former teacher and principal, Hite has led a diverse, mostly poor district that has made drastic budget cuts, but not as severe as those in Philadelphia.


With so much at stake, the retooled SRC must carefully choose the superintendent best able to improve the public schools. Getting it right will be the test.