Philadelphia's new schools chief gets high marks, though some were unhappy with the selection process

Posted: July 01, 2012

William R. Hite Jr. is the new Philadelphia schools chief.

Hite, a former teacher and principal, has been superintendent in Prince George's County, Md., since 2009.

Announcing the selection Friday night, School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos called Hite "an eminent educator and a proven transformative leader."

Hite's salary and start date have yet to be finalized. He makes $250,000 annually in Prince George's County, but his contract there requires that he give 120 days' notice in order to receive severance.

It seems unlikely that the troubled Philadelphia School District can wait until nearly November for a new permanent leader.

SRC member Wendell Pritchett, who led the superintendent search committee, said Friday night that "we want him here as soon as possible," but that he would rather wait for the right leader than settle for someone else.

Hite was selected over Pedro Martinez, deputy superintendent in Clark County, Nev., who was named leader of the Washoe County, Nev., school system Friday. Hite replaces Arlene C. Ackerman, who left Philadelphia last August with a $905,000 payout after a bitter leadership battle.

The top district job is currently held by Thomas Knudsen, who is functioning as chief recovery officer - a combination chief financial officer and superintendent. Knudsen's contract expires in late July, but he has publicly said he would be willing to extend his stay.

"That's something that we're very focused on, and we hope to have an answer soon," Pritchett said.

Pritchett called Hite, 51, a strong educational leader but also a "careful business administrator who can run a very large and complicated enterprise."

Mayor Nutter said in a statement that he was "very impressed with Dr. Hite's passion and commitment to educating children, support for the professional development of teachers and principals, and his dedication to working with the broader Philadelphia community."

Philadelphia has the nation's eighth-largest school system if students in charter schools are counted, about 200,000 in all, with about 140,000 in district-run schools.

The district is on the brink of insolvency, having already cut $700 million last year. It must borrow at least $218 million to operate in 2012-13, and funding is still up in the air.

It is also poised for a total reboot, with officials planning to shrink the central office, close up to 64 schools in five years, and organize the remaining schools into "achievement networks" that could be run by outside organizations, such as universities or charter-school companies.

Hite said he was up to the challenge.

"It presents a new opportunity, one that I think will serve to better advantage many of the students in Philadelphia," he said in an interview.

Leaving Prince George's County, a district he is credited with steering well through rocky waters, will be tough, he said.

"We are really excited about this opportunity, but it is a bittersweet day," Hite said. "It's hard to leave a place where you've been for so many years. I've really put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears, working with some tremendous educators."

Prince George's County, though covering an affluent area demographically, is still a majority-poor district, with a growing number of needy students. As schools chief there, Hite has earned the trust of the teachers' union, despite presiding over three years of $100 million-plus budget cuts.

After Hite and Martinez visited Philadelphia this week, Hite became the clear favorite, winning the backing of many influential Philadelphians.

In meetings, Hite earned mostly high marks for his direct, thoughtful responses. He came off as personable and respectful, even earning a few laughs and applause from crowds who came to district headquarters essentially to grill him.

But not everyone was pleased with the selection process. Some thought it moved too quickly and only paid lip service to community engagement.

Amara Rockar, a member of the West Philadelphia Coalition for Neighborhood Schools, liked Hite, especially his stances on parent and community engagement and neighborhood schools, but was unhappy with the search, which she said involved the community too late.

After receiving about 100 initial applications and nominations, the search committee whittled the list to 11 finalists.

Rockar wanted to know who the 11 were, and the identities of the five Philadelphia candidates.

"It was a flawed process," she said.

Hite said his first order of business was to "stop talking and listen" to help inform his work and spur healing in a district hit hard by a funding crisis and Ackerman's ugly exit.

Hite has said he will likely ask a group of outsiders to study the district and make recommendations as part of his transition.

He said he had read up on Philadelphia's multiple plans - its blueprint for transformation, its strategic plan, its budget - and thought they were "disconnected." Part of his job will be determining how they fit together, Hite said.

Hite is married with two children and a young grandchild. He said he and his wife were looking forward to city living.

He holds a doctorate in educational leadership from Virginia Tech University.


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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