Political tensions add complication to FCPS superintendent search

Wanted: a superintendent for the 10th largest school division in the U.S.

Desired traits include, but are not limited to, effective communication skills, experience interacting with diverse communities, a willingness to listen without being swayed by the loudest critics, and the ability to find creative solutions to existing problems while also planning for the future of education — one that is, hopefully, post-pandemic.

Finding someone with all those qualities, as well as the educational and professional qualifications needed to lead a school system with 178,227 students and nearly 25,000 full-time employees, would be challenging in ordinary times.

With current Superintendent Scott Brabrand set to depart on June 30, the Fairfax County School Board has been tasked with hiring a new leader at a time of heightened political tensions over public education, when school board meetings can devolve into arrests and gun threats and classroom lessons are subject to legislation, tip lines, and book bans.

Fairfax County Public Schools is far from the only place looking for a new superintendent, according to Gary Ray, president of GR Recruiting, the human resources firm hired to conduct the nationwide search for Brabrand’s successor.

“I’ve been doing this for nearly 40 years, and this is the most, the very most vacancies that I’ve ever seen,” Ray told the school board at a work session yesterday (Monday). “…This certainly will not only be a challenge for us and the board. It’s a challenge for a lot of districts out there.”

After spending December and January gathering staff and community input, GR Recruiting will move into a new phase of the search process with plans to start advertising the superintendent position this week.

The job posting and a more detailed candidate profile are being developed based on feedback from the school board and the public, which had the opportunity to weigh in through an online survey, virtual town hall meetings, and stakeholder meetings.

According to GR Recruiting’s presentation, the survey, which was open from Jan. 4-18, drew 9,523 responses, 57% of them from parents and guardians of current FCPS students. The six town hall meetings held on Jan. 12, 13, and 18 drew 337 participants.

The traits that community members want in Fairfax County Public Schools’ new superintendent, based on a public survey (via K12 Insight/FCPS)

Dr. Gloria Davis from GR Recruiting reported that the firm also met with 45 different stakeholder groups that represented staff, community members, and FCPS leadership.

Participants consistently cited effective and timely communication as a priority for the new superintendent, along with transparency, decisiveness, good listening skills, and an appreciation of the county’s diversity.

The need to put students first and address disparity in access to different academic programs were also recurring themes, according to Davis.

“It was expressed that, in light of the many challenges that Fairfax County faces as well as school divisions across the country, they want a superintendent who is brave and courageous,” Davis said. “Those were the exact words used often.”

Several school board members expressed concern about the relatively low survey response rate. GR Recruiting said it sent invitations to the survey to 225,761 parents, students, and staff.

While they floated the idea of resending the survey, the board ultimately seemed to agree that it might not be worthwhile, given the tight timeline for the search.

According to Davis, the deadline for candidates to apply for the job will be March 4. GR Recruiting will then review the applications and present a slate of candidates to the school board on March 17.

The candidates will be narrowed down with two rounds of interviews in late March, the second of which will include a panel of community members appointed by the school board. The new superintendent is expected to be announced in the first or second week of April.

“I don’t know why we didn’t get more involvement [in the survey], so I’m not really sure if reopening it would garner more results at this point and taking into consideration we’re bumping up against these tight timelines,” said school board chair Stella Pekarsky, who represents Sully District. “I am feeling the pressure to go ahead with advertising this.”