The Ottumwa school board’s plans for finding a new superintendent were, as announced, about as good as one could hope. The way they said the search would be conducted was as open and transparent as things can be in these very unusual times.
The school board’s plans, as enacted, were a failure. To borrow a sports metaphor, they fumbled the ball at the one yard line.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the board made the wrong decision or that the decision to hire Mike McGrory as the new superintendent is doomed to failure. We hope it’s quite the opposite. But that’s really all anyone in Ottumwa can do right now: hope. The board didn’t give anyone but itself time to review the candidates.
The board announced the two finalists less than 24 hours before it made its selection. And, because of the timing of the announcement late Wednesday, most people didn’t find out the names until only a few hours before the board’s Thursday meeting.
That was an unacceptable dereliction of duty. All that can be said is that it denied the public the time to look at the candidates and come to any sort of reasonable conclusion about their qualifications or backgrounds. It fell far short of the earlier promises of transparency in the process.
It’s always risky to assume intent when simple incompetence will explain an event. But the board has not shown itself to be particularly incompetent. The search was conducted under a tight timeline, and the fact the decision was for a permanent superintendent rather than a caretaker for the next year is impressive given the constraints.
That suggests, though, that the lack of time for the public to vet the finalists wasn’t accidental. It suggests the board made a conscious decision to enact a timeline that complied with the open meetings requirements in Iowa law but did little else.
It was the kind of step we had hoped the district had put in its past. That hope was clearly not warranted.
We wish Superintendent McGrory well. In returning to Ottumwa he takes up a long list of challenges that an even longer list of superintendents and board members have failed to fix. There has been progress in recent years, but not nearly enough.
The challenges we see today are much the same as what faced McGrory’s predecessor when she arrived. Open enrollment continues to drain both people and resources from the district. Testing shows tepid improvement at best.
Stability has been an issue as well. The high school has had four principals in four years, though that appears set to change.
In short, the Ottumwa school district has many of the same problems and potential strengths it did when previous superintendents took the helm. It’s not all the doom and gloom critics might say it is, but neither is it the sunshine and rainbows of the district’s apologists.
We hope McGrory can rise to the challenge. But we wish his tenure wasn’t starting under such an easily-avoidable cloud.