Running a school district is tough.
Running a big district like Charleston County’s is tougher.
Tougher still: The extra challenge facing new Charleston County School District Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait due to a hiring process that was clumsy at best, fishy at worst and indisputably divisive.
Some school board members spoke out of protocol’s turn with Postlewait before the official search began for a replacement for Nancy McGinley.
Then the board voted on July 2 to offer Postlewait the job. Some people thought the fix was in. Some also thought the board’s call looked like a rush job — and an insensitive one — because it came down just 16 days after the killings of the Emanuel Nine.
The board’s 5-4 margin included “no” votes from all three black members.
Then North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, reacting on the day of that vote, issued a statement saying he was “extremely disappointed” in the panel’s decision and calling on Postlewait “to decline the board’s appointment.”
Remember, too, that McGinley was forced out last year after drawing harsh criticism in a racially charged controversy about the football team at Academic Magnet High, which has few black students, and its unofficial — and now defunct — watermelon mascot.
Postlewait, in a meeting with this newspaper’s editorial board on Monday, acknowledged the residual resentment over her hiring.
Still, she added: “This got really messy, but I decided to ride it out.”
And less than two weeks after starting her new job, she made a fine impression on me — a product of Charleston County public schools.
OK, so she should have to work hard — and well — for her $226,000 salary.
So as school administrators often do, Postlewait did slip a bit into the bewildering educrat-jargon thicket (example: “developmental continuum”) on Monday.
Yet her resolute pitch struck an overall straight-talk tone — including her focus on Job One of evaluating where the district is and where it needs to go.
Among Postlewait’s points:
She repeatedly stressed “the outcome concern.”
She emphasized the pressing need for “a culture and a process” to reach vital goals — including closing the awful achievement gap between the county’s high-performing and low-performing schools.
Postlewait brings a proven track record to that crucial task. When she left the Horry County School District in 2006 after 14 years (the last 10 as superintendent), that tenure included significant process in closing its achievement gap.
More of Monday’s educational insights from Postlewait:
“Accountability needs to be the conscience of the system. It means confronting where we are.”
“We can talk about all the other things that need to come back, but it really all comes back to the 3 Rs.”
She seemed especially intent on overcoming “the inertia” of the public-school status quo. She cited a book with a title that captures that theme — “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” by Clayton M. Christensen and co-authors Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson.
From Christensen’s website description of that concept: “If we hope to stay competitive — academically, economically, and technologically — we need to reevaluate our educational system, rethink our approach to learning, and reinvigorate our commitment to learning. In other words, we need disruptive innovation.”
Postlewait used that word — “disruptive” — too.
Of course, most folks talk a good game when starting a new job.
Then again, Postlewait sounded admirably adamant about not taking “no” for an answer to this defining question:
Will the Charleston County district finally attain major improvements at schools that have for far too long been mired in dismal academic outcomes?
One obvious assignment is to work not just vigorously but wisely.
Postlewait, noting the wasteful futility of misguided efforts, recalled this old saying favored by her grandfather:
“We’re painting really hard, but we’ve got our ladder propped up against the wrong wall.”
So don’t prop your ladder “up against the wrong wall” by reflexively rejecting Postlewait.
Don’t take your anger at the board out on her — and worse, on kids stuck in those struggling schools.
And don’t underestimate the new superintendent’s way with words.
For instance, she came up with this all-too-apt, self-confessed “mixed metaphor” late in Monday’s visit with us:
“I’m treading water on a steep learning curve, and my credibility bank is already overdrawn.”
But that shouldn’t mean she still can’t produce a positive outcome — if given a fair chance.
Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.