On Dec. 13, moments before voting to promote the Pittsburgh Public Schools' second-in-command to superintendent, school-board members insisted she was the only choice they had.
"Of all the people we could have considered," board member Bill Isler told deputy superintendent Linda Lane, "nobody brings what you bring to this district."
Of course, nobody else had a chance to try. Since Mark Roosevelt announced in October that he would be stepping down, just one candidate -- Lane -- was interviewed for the job.
Skeptics worry the district should have taken a multiple-choice test. "I would have liked to see [the board] do a larger search," says Kathy Fine, co-founder of Parents United for Responsible Educational Reform, a local parents group concerned about the district's direction under Roosevelt. "To do a national search and have [Lane] come out on top -- that's the transparency, that's the accountability we're looking for."
But education experts say that promoting from within the district -- even without looking outside it -- was the right call.
"The decision to hire from within or go outside is always a challenging question for a board," says Tom Templeton, assistant executive director of school board and management services for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. But "if the board feels the district is moving in the right direction under Roosevelt, and if an individual inside [the district] could naturally continue those efforts, it could be a very prudent choice to" forego a national search.
Roosevelt's reform efforts, which began when he took over as superintendent five years ago, are in full swing. Among his many initiatives, Roosevelt has: changed school configurations, opening K-8 and 6-12 schools; launched the Pittsburgh Promise, a college-scholarship program for graduates who meet certain grade requirements; and implemented the Empowering Effective Teachers program, which is designed to change how teachers are evaluated and paid.
Because the district is still grappling with sweeping reforms -- especially at the high school level -- some experts say the district was wise to hire Lane, who has been Roosevelt's deputy for the past three years. Lane's career in education began in 1971, where she taught elementary school in Iowa. For roughly the next three decades, she served as a teacher and administrator at Des Moines Public Schools before coming to Pittsburgh in 2007.
"Pittsburgh could have done a search," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Council of the Great City Schools. He estimates that about 80 percent of the superintendents from large urban districts are hired through national searches. "But it would have been for the wrong reasons."
Casserly says the board correctly based its decision on where the Pittsburgh Public Schools stand in the reform process. "It sounded like a lot of people were happy with the direction the district was pursuing," he says. "In circumstances like that, one of the worst things a board could do is [conduct] a national search and risk the possibility of hiring someone whose agenda is very different."
"They didn't have to do a search," agrees Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, a local organization that monitors progress at the city district. If they did, she adds, the district's reform efforts "could lose momentum."
Lane, who will become the first black woman to serve as Pittsburgh's superintendent, has pledged to continue the district's reform initiatives. And board members say her commitment to that agenda played a crucial part in her promotion.
"We weren't interested in changing directions," says board member Theresa Colaizzi. Besides, she adds, "A search is very grueling, and it doesn't mean you'll get the best candidate." The district's previous two superintendents, Dale Frederick and John Thompson, were hired from outside the district. Frederick stayed less than two years, and Thompson's tenure was marked by tension with the board.
A search also costs time and money. According to Casserly, searches typically take from three to nine months, and can cost $100,000. (Colaizzi says the district paid $80,000 to find Roosevelt.)
If the district didn't have a qualified internal candidate, says Casserly, the board probably would have had no choice but to conduct a national search. In this case, however, "you've got somebody internally whose expertise and experience with reforms are solid," he says. "She's got a clear sense of where the board wants to go."
Well, maybe not the whole board.
"If [Lane] was what all these board members said she is, then she should be able to withstand the interviewing process" as part of a national search, says Mark Brentley. Brentley cast the lone "no" vote on Lane's promotion, and has been an outspoken critic of practically all of Roosevelt's reform initiatives. "This is a large district. You don't do a rinky-dink process when finding a superintendent."
Brentley says the district could have benefited from hearing suggestions from outside candidates on how to improve the school district. "We could have gotten a lot out of it," he says. "What [is the board] afraid of?"