Let me get this out of the way, first. They all struck me as highly intelligent people. They can probably all do the job. If I were on the school committee I'd be looking for the highest ceiling, versus the lowest risk. What do I want in a superintendent? I want someone who I believe can be a truly dynamic and inspiring leader. We need someone who can build trust with, and inspire students, teachers, staff, school committee and parents. So I'm coming at this from that prism. Here are the candidates, in the order that they interviewed with the school committee.
Ayinde Rudolph: I got to see Rudolph twice, and chat with him a little bit. Probably gives him an unfair advantage with me. That said, on paper, I liked him the most before they came to town. He's had classroom experience, as well as 8 years of administrative experience in the Charlotte Mecklenburg schools (a large, urban district with high poverty), with 2 years as an assistant principal, and 6 years as a principal. I'm just going to state this as a fact. Rudolph had a presence about him that the other two lacked. He was engaging and personable. I buy him completely as someone who can motivate and build bridges that have been torched over the years. He also has a doctorate from Vanderbilt. Two school committee members previously expressed an inability to support any candidate (didn't think they should be even considered) without a terminal degree. Rudolph has the only terminal degree in the bunch. He would also have two students at SHS next year, and a future Kindergartner. He talked frequently about asking himself if the services being provided to students in Salem would be good enough for them. I like that.
When asked if he had questions for the school committee, his question to them was whether or not they had the guts to make tough, unpopular decisions. It was better than any question posed by the other candidates. I'm all in on Rudolph as having the highest ceiling for what he can bring to the district. If teachers, staff, students are following any of these three through a wall it's him. I'd put him between the other two candidates for lowest floor, based on level of experience similar to this job.
Ventura Rodriguez: Rodriguez was clearly quite intelligent, as well. I could see the potential for him to be a strong, engaging, inspiring leader, but I have a lot more questions with him. First, he simply has less and weirder experience. He has eight years in a classroom as a teacher, with four in San Francisco, and four in Kenya. He also spent four and a half years as principal of a charter school in New York City. In that role, he supervised 35 people. Running the Salem Public Schools seems like a big jump from that. He also has been a full time student for the last three years, and is basically doing a residency with DESE for the last 9 months. I shouldn't have to remind you that at least one School Committee member views DESE like the devil.
During his school committee interview, he said he's not all charter all the time, and specifically chose to move away from that world. There are reports that earlier in the day all of his stories were charter, charter, charter. The other thing I feel the need to point out from his interview is that each candidate was asked to facilitate the beginning of a SC workshop on the student assignment policy. Rodriguez modified the assignment for himself to jump into the middle, and then spent literally the entire ten minutes talking himself. That's not good facilitation. On that exercise, he was clearly the worst of the three.
On the ceiling front, I'd rank Rodriguez second. At the same time, I'd say he has the lowest floor, rated purely on his having less administrative and leadership experience. He also lacks any public school experience, which may be both a positive (fresh perspective) and negative (could totally combust.)
Margarita Ruiz: Competent is the word that comes to mind with Ruiz. Stable, capable, steady, as well. What I didn't get from her was "inspiring." Not really at all. In fact, I zoned out completely several times while she spoke. For the committee, she's probably the safest choice. I'd tell you that as an inspiring, engaging leader, I'd say her ceiling is lowest. At the same time, her floor is probably the highest, as she's run a section of the Boston Public Schools that is similar in size to our district. She has not, in that time, had to deal with a school committee, and things like that, but her job experience is most closely aligned to our position. She also did the best job on the facilitation exercise, followed by Rudolph. She involved the committee most, and you know they love to talk.
I'm aware of two situations where she's alleged to have directly lied, or changed her story between earlier in the day, and when she was before the school committee. I didn't witness them, myself, but the sources are respected.
It really appeared to me that she walked into the room as the favorite. I can't begin to guess why. What I can say, is that the School Committee frequently broke the protocol they had set for the interviews by asking several follow ups during the standard questions, starting with the mayor right from the first question. They also allowed her interview to go a full 15 minutes longer than the time limit they had enforced on the other two candidates. Additionally, why wasn't the candidate who lives in Salem, and likely has SATV at home, the first to interview? Does anyone believe she wasn't watching Rudolph's interview on TV? The School Committee also had a different level of attention and interest during Ruiz's interview, and I don't think it was caused by the candidate. Was it the aura of the giant Boston Public School district? I can't guess, but at times it almost seemed like they were drooling over her. At one point Mr. Fleming, who had screeched about how they MUST demand a terminal degree, told her how unimportant it was for her to have one, and he was nearly applauding her answers.
As I said, Ruiz is probably the safe choice. Dr. Russell was the safe choice last time. Cameron before that. She reminds me more of Cameron than Rusell, but I'm sure she's more capable than Cameron. Like him, though, I can picture her telling different groups what they want to hear, even if the messages conflict. We've tried the safest. The safest hasn't worked. We should try the inspiring.
If I were ranking them I'd absolutely rank Rudolph first. I believe we need high ceiling and potential, so I'd put Rodriguez second, though I struggle with that when comparing floors. I'd put Ruiz third, but I fully expect the school committee to take the safe, if less potentially inspiring, choice. Let me also add, I only have access to the info I have. I think, and hope they have more. I'm only going on resumes and interviews.
Let me finish with this. I think the school committee is really rushing to judgment trying to make a decision today. Two of the finalists spent the entire day in the district yesterday, meeting with many, many people. The School Committee hasn't had enough time to truly gather feedback and review it in detail. If you say you want an open and collaborative process you need to allow enough time for that to happen. They aren't really allowing that time.