After a whirlwind 48 hours of public meet-and-greets with superintendent finalists William Hite and Pedro Martinez, key segments of the Philadelphia community appear to be leaning toward Hite as the preferred candidate for the job.
Two City Council members who attended both public forums came out assertively in support of Hite: Councilwoman and Education Chair Jannie Blackwell, and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.
Blackwell said she appreciated Hite’s background as an educator, and the level of engagement he was able to engender with the public.
“His style was almost the opposite of Mr. Martinez,” Blackwell explained. “Dr. Hite was easy-going, very engaging, and tried to answer each person personally.”
Johnson also liked Hite’s focus on fiscal transparency.
“When he talked about putting the District’s budget online, that totally impressed me,” he said.
Parents United for Public Education also officially endorsed Hite, though the organization expressed reservations about the search process.
“But, given that the process has proceeded and that there are two candidate choices,” said member Gerald Wright, “we believe that Dr. Hite is the better choice of the two. He seems to have demonstrated leadership, and he is also the candidate with actual educational background.”
Senior pastor Reverend Alyn E. Waller at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, the city’s largest African-American congregation, also came out strongly in support of Hite after meeting both candidates during private sessions with clergy.
While he praised Martinez, calling him a “financial whiz,” he shared community members’ concerns that “he does not know the inside of a classroom experientially.”
“While both of them bring a lot of skills to the table, only one of them has a final degree in education, and only one of them has actual experience in the classroom,” said Waller.
After Tuesday’s public forum with Hite, the Notebook conducted informal interviews with 55 participants who said they had listened to or read about both candidates, and all but seven said they preferred Hite.
While many spoke highly of Martinez’s budgeting skills and business know-how, they also expressed concern with his lack of teaching experience.
Teacher Kristin Luebbert of Bache-Martin Elementary agreed. “You could tell he had been in the classroom. … I feel like [Hite] has way more depth of experience and staying in places and working out problems, which is something we need.”
David Hardy, CEO of Boys Latin Charter High School, admitted that hearing from both candidates during private meetings with charter school leaders had helped to change his mind.
“When I went into it, I thought I would be more in support of Martinez, because he has more of a charter school background,” said Hardy.
However, Hardy left the meetings supporting Hite, explaining that Hite appeared better prepared. “He did a better job at explaining what was going on in schools, and doing it from an education perspective.”
Hardy also said he appreciated Hite’s ability to reflect on his previous failures as well as successes. “If you don’t do things and fail, then you’re not taking any chances,” he said.
Larry Jones, president of Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said he is “not leaning towards one candidate or the other.” He felt that both candidates demonstrated an “openness and a willingness to look at providing high-quality education across all sectors.”
Jones did comment that Martinez seemed to favor “national” charter school operators from outside Philadelphia, whereas Hite appeared to favor charter “expertise here in Philly.”
Among attendees at the Tuesday evening forum, there was a strong sense that Hite connected well with the audience.
“He spoke more personally. He wasn’t as highbrow as Martinez,” explained Maurice Jones, of the West Philadelphia Coalition of Neighborhood Schools and Home and School Council President at Lea Elementary.
Others echoed support for Hite’s experience as an educator.
“He’s the total package,” said Cecelia Thompson, public school parent and chair of the Philadelphia Right to Education Local Task Force.
“He understands what’s going on in the schools, and he has the administrative side.”
Several parents and teachers also expressed general frustration with the process the SRC has used to gather community feedback about the candidates. Some said that they had received messages from the District about the public meetings no more than a day beforehand, making attendance at the meetings challenging.
Wright of Parents United agreed that the process felt rushed. “It would have been great if we had more time to both talk with the candidates and hear their responses… We would hope in the future that these big decisions will be less rapid and leave more time for counter-discussions, inclusiveness, and transparency.”
Hardy added that the timing of the meetings made it difficult for charter operators to attend. He noticed that only about ten charter operators made it to the private afternoon sessions held with the candidates.
Every attendee at the public evening meetings with Hite and Martinez received an 11-question “Educational Leadership Criteria” ballot that did not specifically ask people to express their preference. Individuals were asked to fill it out and return it to the SRC.
Search committee chairman Wendell Pritchett said the SRC hopes to make an offer by Friday. He told the gathering that the SRC would read all the responses and take them into account before making a final decision. It was unclear whether the SRC intended to summarize the results and make them public before choosing.
Pritchett said one reason for the quick timeline is that Martinez is also in the running to be superintendent in Washoe County (Reno), Nev. That school board also expects to make a decision Friday. Martinez, who previously worked in that district, is one of five finalists. But he told a reporter after Monday’s public meeting that Philadelphia is his first choice.
Hite, on the other hand, is not eager to leave his current job in Prince George’s County, Md., where he has been superintendent for two years and deputy superintendent for three years before that.
“It’s going to be a difficult decision,” explained Hite. “That’s why I”m using this time to really gauge the city of Philadelphia.”