No backsliding on Fayette education goals

Fayette County Schools superintendent Stu Silberman with Landsdown Elementary students.
Fayette County Schools superintendent Stu Silberman with Landsdown Elementary students.

A good school superintendent is hard to find, as the Fayette County school board and a soon-to-be-appointed screening committee will no doubt discover.

Stu Silberman has been an extraordinarily good superintendent for Fayette County.

His planned retirement — three years shy of the 10 years he had promised when he took the job — comes as a blow.

The challenge now, not just for the five members of the school board but also for the entire community, is deeper than hiring an able successor. Silberman's premature exit must not be allowed to become a victory for the forces of complacency and bias that held back Lexington's public schools for so long.

Silberman lit a fire under an underachieving district that was falling far short of its potential. He brought a sense of purpose to a dysfunctional central administration that embarrassed itself trying to make even routine decisions.

He pricked Lexington's moral conscience and built public support for education, as evidenced by the ease with which a property tax increase for school construction sailed through.

The flames of education improvement are fragile, though, especially when they meet resistance from those who are comfortable with things as they were.

Guarding against backsliding, then, has to be the No. 1 priority because, as Silberman would be the first to say, there's a great deal of improvement still to be made.

The board began planning the search for a new superintendent Thursday, two days after the surprising announcement by Silberman, 59, that he would his office in July.

If guided by lessons of the past, the board will encourage public participation in the search and keep the process as open as possible.

In 2003, the Fayette County school board went to great lengths to preserve the confidentiality of its superintendent search, even smuggling a semifinalist in hidden under an umbrella. That search yielded a superintendent who stayed eight months; he was the fifth superintendent in 10 years.

The search that yielded Silberman was more open and obviously more successful. The stage was set for Silberman's demanding, high-energy style of leadership when he arrived from Daviess County in 2004.

For one thing, Lexington's black community had organized to demand more effective teaching for minority students whose achievement levels trailed woefully behind their white counterparts.

More generally, there was a sense that the district had been content with having a few pockets of excellence while coasting on the achievements of its many students who come with the advantages of educated families.

During the Silberman years, students from all income levels and ethnic groups posted steady — and at some schools, dramatic — gains. The achievement gap hasn't been closed, but everyone recognizes that narrowing it is a top priority, and things are moving in the right direction.

Lexington is a great place to live; this should be an attractive opportunity for ambitious educators.

The school board must make clear that we want a superintendent who is as determined as Silberman has been to make good on the promise that all children can learn at high levels, if only they are taught at high levels.

The rest of us must shoulder the responsibility of holding them to that commitment.