Was just last week I offered up my opinion that a school board’s top job is to hire a strong superintendent. I seem to have overlooked that, in Illinois, if you are hiring a superintendent from outside our state borders, it would be advisable to ask your top candidates if they understand square roots and why the hell there are letters in math problems.
Turns out Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, first the interim and now the permanent superintendent at Oak Park and River Forest High School, failed to pass the state’s required math test on her first go-round. She convened an all-staff meeting last week to fess up about the math test, but much more significantly to report she is having surgery on her back in January and will be largely out of commission for three months.
She’ll take the math test again and, if she crams, maybe she’ll pass it. Why on earth we need a school superintendent who, as a commenter on OakPark.com noted, knows how to figure the volume of a sphere or the area of a cone is beyond logic.
We need a superintendent with enough aptitude to grasp the arcane aspects of state school funding and the ins and outs of Cook County’s busted property tax assessment system. Mainly though, we need a superintendent self-aware enough to understand her weaknesses and hire well in the finance director’s post.
Over a lot of years, I’ve seen a lot of superintendents rise and fall on the talent of their business managers. The only tax referendum I recall this newspaper ever opposing was at OPRF when the superintendent was a veteran English Department chair and the business manager had been promoted well past his competency. They proposed a staggering tax hike, the business manager couldn’t explain heads or tails about why the school needed so much money, and the effort went down in flames. A year later with a new business manager, an ask at half the price, and an ability to explain the need, a referendum was easily OK’d.
A later business manager buffaloed the school board and both villages and used a loophole in state law to convert the modest tax hike into a huge money grab that resulted in the gigantic run-up in cash reserves at OPRF — well north of $100 million — a public relations debacle that the school is still trying to move past.
Knowing trig wouldn’t help a superintendent in either situation. Broadly understanding school finance and budgeting, being able to read and lead a school board, having an ability to connect with faculty, and a sincere interest in listening to the entire community — now those are qualities necessary for a superintendent.
And by my observation, those are qualities that Pruitt-Adams has a mathematical surplus in. That both the school board president and the Faculty Senate president stood with Pruitt-Adams last week as she spoke to the full staff is fairly remarkable.
So while I wish Pruitt-Adams good luck on the math test, my genuine concern is with her upcoming medical leave. It is never a good time to have major surgery on your back. But the January into spring timeframe is a critical one for her young superintendency. The Imagine OPRF super-committee is in high gear, working on long-term facility needs that tie to both real-world economics, critical rethinking of teaching strategies and the classrooms necessary for that teaching, and, of course, the pesky pool problem. Recommendations from that committee are due in the first half of 2018.
Simultaneously, OPRF and its faculty will be negotiating a new contract between now and the close of the school year. Last week I made the case that this contract is inextricably linked to the equity issues that are at the core of Pruitt-Adams’ tenure at OPRF.
So forget her rudimentary math skills.
It’s her leadership we are depending on.