As Philadelphia's School Reform Commission prepares to meet in private today on how to proceed with the search for a new leader of the school district, ideas are swirling on what the cash-strapped system needs next.

Should it look for another high-profile, dynamic visionary like departing chief executive officer Paul Vallas?

Or should it find a financial wizard who will work behind the scenes to right the deficit-plagued district's financial ship?

Should it be someone local? Or should the district cast the net nationally, searching in large urban districts for a superintendent or second-in-charge who has the needed skills to succeed in Philadelphia?

"This is a good opportunity for them to sketch out the next phase of their reforms," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a lobbying group for big-city districts. "From that, make some decisions about the kind of superintendent they want to attract."

The commissioners today also could decide whether to name an interim CEO. Vallas, CEO since July 2002, announced Wednesday that he would leave as soon as June.

Among those being considered are chief academic officer Gregory Thornton, who recently bowed out of his bid for the Seattle superintendent's job, and Thomas Brady, who was hired last month as the district's chief operating officer.

Casserly expects the district will get lots of interest in its top post, which pays $275,000 plus hefty performance and longevity bonuses. Vallas has opted to collect $250,000 this year because of the deficit.

"The best candidates across the country will be attracted to that job because they see it as a city that is serious about its own reforms and working hard to create a better school system," Casserly said.

But others suspect the district could have trouble.

"How do you go about finding a replacement for Paul Vallas in a context as complicated as Philadelphia's?" mused Thomas Toch, codirector of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington. "Pray a lot."

Toch, who has closely followed Vallas' career and Philadelphia's efforts to turn around its schools, added: "There is not going to be any quick fix in Philadelphia. Whoever comes in will be faced with a range of challenges that have to be addressed simultaneously."

And, he said, large urban districts often have a difficult time finding candidates.

"Just the physical demands on people in these jobs are enormous. You have to be able to go 90 miles an hour almost 24/7," he said. "The demand is great and the talent pool is small."

Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, an educational research group in Washington, noted the problems Boston encountered in its search to replace Thomas Payzant, who retired in June after 11 years.

"Everyone who watches urban education thought that Boston would be the easy one," Haycock said.

Payzant, she said, had given plenty of notice of his retirement, and he had strong support from the mayor and Boston's school board.

The search, however, took longer than expected and stalled when Rochester (N.Y.) Superintendent Manuel J. Rivera took the job and then changed his mind.

"They have just had a nightmare," Haycock said.

She said Philadelphia's task could be more difficult: The city is in the midst of a mayor's race, and the district is facing serious financial problems.

Phil Goldsmith, who served as interim CEO of the district before the state takeover in 2001, said varying styles of leadership are needed at different times in a district's history.

"Paul was the right person when he came in. He was a change agent. He brought hope. He brought energy," Goldsmith said of Vallas, who swiftly ordered up changes in discipline, capital plans, curriculum and other areas in his first year.

"At some point in time, you had to institutionalize and solidify some of those gains," he added. The School Reform Commission (SRC) also needed to oversee the district without micromanaging Vallas.

"Paul became a cult figure," Goldsmith said. "It became increasingly more difficult for the SRC to really fulfill its function."

The district, he said, needs a strong financial steward. It faces a $37 million deficit this year and larger shortfalls in subsequent years if more state and city money is not generated.

He suggested State Budget Secretary Michael Masch, a former school board member and former member of the SRC, whose name has already been informally floated by Mayor Street. Masch, Goldsmith said, also has the governor's confidence.

Michael Lerner, who heads the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, the principals union, said he would like to see a new leader who will put a moratorium on charter schools; not publicly demean principals whose schools are experiencing problems; and work to secure more funding for the district.

"Something has to be done to get full funding, programmatically, for public schools so they don't have to pick and choose between a physical-education teacher and the math books for fifth-grade classes," he said.

Jerry Jordan, vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, hopes Vallas' succesor will be an educator. Vallas was tapped to be Chicago's superintendent after serving as that city's budget director.

"I think educators tend to have a better feel for students than those who haven't been in the classroom," he said.

Just what ends up on the commissioners' list is uncertain.

It's also unclear whether the commissioners will look for a longer-term interim CEO, who will serve possibly as long as a year, or try to fill the permanent job before the start of school.

Judith M. von Seldeneck, chairman and CEO of Diversified Search, a Philadelphia-based firm that brought Brady here from Washington as chief operating officer, said a comprehensive search could be completed in four months. But it could take longer, depending on how many groups are granted input on the selection, she said.

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com

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