The search for a new superintendent to lead Salt Lake City School District has been narrowed down to three finalists.
The candidates were announced last week, emerging at the top of a pool of 33 applicants for the position. They are:
• Jharrett Bryantt, currently an executive leader in the Houston Independent School District in Texas, which is the seventh largest school district in the country.
• Timothy Gadson, the associate superintendent of high schools with Anoka-Hennepin Schools in Minnesota.
• Wendy González, the superintendent of Page County Public Schools in Virginia.
Melissa Ford, president of Salt Lake City’s school board, which is tasked with naming the superintendent, said she feels each of those finalists would “bring a different perspective” to the district — which is one of the most diverse in the state.
“Even from just hearing their bios, it’s easy to see why we’ve been so impressed with these three candidates,” she said in a statement. “… Each of them is a model of the most important attributes we hope to find in our next superintendent.”
Whoever is selected will be tasked with overseeing the district of 21,000 students in 37 schools as it grapples with declining enrollment. That trend has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic and after the district decided to start the year entirely online.
Students have since been given the option returned in person, starting last month, but Salt Lake City — like many districts across the nation — still faces challenges in getting kids caught up on missed curriculum.
The district, one of the largest in the state, has also seen infighting over the past year. Members of the school board have openly fought in public and come under fire for texting each other profanities.
Additionally, the district’s previous superintendent, Lexi Cunningham, left at the end of last school year. One former school board member disclosed that Cunningham was forced out after four other members voted to fire her if she didn’t voluntarily leave.
He said she was “targeted” after some on the board asked her to fire 16 principals districtwide and she declined to do so. On that list was Ford White, formerly the principal at West High School. At the time, he was on leave after he drove students home that he had found drinking on school grounds. According to district policy for safety, he was supposed to call the police.
The new superintendent will be tasked with bridging some of the continuing divide and rebuilding trust within the community. Larry Madden, who has been filling in as superintendent in the interim, did not apply and will be retiring at the end of the year.
The person taking his place will also oversee a renowned international baccalaureate program for high-achieving students, a charter school focused on the arts and a specialized science center. And he or she will lead a district whose student body is 57% minority, where more than 90 languages are spoken among those enrolled.
Here’s a closer look at the three finalists and how you can weigh in.
Bryantt has been leading the Houston Independent School District as an assistant superintendent for the past five years.
In his role, he focuses on students’ readiness for college and classes for those who are advanced learners. He has also been in charge of “innovative initiatives.”
In 2019, when he was 29 years old, Bryantt was named one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30” for education based on his work to get more low-income students into college. The magazine said: “Bryantt is taking on the college access gap” and credited him with co-authoring $22.5 million in grants.
He began working as an educator in 2011, when he taught high school geometry with the Teach for American program.
Bryantt received his doctoral degree in education policy and leadership from the University of Texas at Austin. He did his undergraduate at Yale University.
Gadson has served as an administrator at just about every level of education in a decadeslong career spanning several states.
He’s been an assistant principal and principal over elementary, middle school and high school. And he also oversaw an alternative education center in Florida.
Gadson has risen through the ranks over the years, too. He was previously the district director of secondary education over Palm Beach County School District. He led “transformation efforts,” meant to reform how learning is delivered, in Wisconsin. And he led high school operations in Texas and Minnesota.
Most recently, he’s been directing the Anoka-Hennepin school system in Minnesota. Last year, protesters alleged that the school district punished students for speaking out against racism and didn’t take racist actions seriously.
At the time, Gadson told the local newspaper that he felt strongly about rectifying any situations in the past — including an allegation that a 16-year-old student was forced to apologize for saying “Black lives matter.”
“We know that this is a journey, that we have a lot of work to do, but we want to do that work,” he said.
He has been a strong proponent that students learn best when the material is “culturally relevant and responsive.”
Additionally, Gadson has recently settled a federal lawsuit that he filed in 2017 after he was offered a superintendent position in Georgia and then the offer was rescinded less than a month later. The district there had said the Gadson was demanding a salary much higher than the previous superintendent. But Gadson claimed it was discrimination because he is Black.
In addition to Salt Lake City, Gadson is also currently a finalist to be superintendent over North Clackamas School District in Oregon.
He received a master’s degree and doctor of philosophy degree from Washington State University. He completed his undergraduate at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.
González has worked in education for 28 years.
Most of her career has been in Virginia. There, she is currently the superintendent of Page County Schools, a position she has served in since 2018. She has worked to get about 99% of the students there to graduate.
Prior to that, she was the director of teaching, learning and accountability for Charles City County Public Schools and the coordinator of accountability and assessment in Williamsburg-James City County Schools.
She, too, has held various administrative positions in schools, as an assistant principal, dean and improvement coach. And, at one point, she taught at her alma mater, James Madison University.
González announced she’d be leaving her current position as superintendent at the end of the academic year to find something closer to family.
“As you may know, I am an empty nester now with parents, children, and grandchildren living in various locations and I would like to live closer to at least some of them,” she wrote in a letter shared by the local news station.
She has faced some pushback in her position for choosing to get rid of the honor of valedictorian at the high schools she oversaw and instituting a random drug testing policy for students.
González got her bachelor’s degree from James Madison University. And she received a master’s degree and a doctorate from The George Washington University. There, she was awarded for her dissertation work on how administrators could better use data to help students achieve.
How you can weigh in
The three candidates will come to Salt Lake City this week for the final part of the process. Each has been assigned a day:
• González will be here Tuesday.
• Bryantt is visiting Wednesday.
• Gadson has been scheduled for Thursday.
Each finalist will be interviewed by the school board on his or her day, and those discussions will be livestreamed.
Each day will also feature two forums where the public can ask questions of a candidate. The first one, billed as a community forum where anyone can join, will run from 7 to 7:50 p.m. Those will be streamed on Zoom, and participants who wish to ask questions will be able to do so using the the Q&A function on the webinar.
The second forum will be specifically for parents. Those will go from 8 to 8:50 p.m. each evening. Parents will receive instructions via email for how to participate. They will also receive a form allowing them to submit questions. Those will be vetted by Ray and Associates, the consultants hired by the school board to manage the search for a new superintendent.
Students who wish to participate will go through a separate process. They’re being asked to submit questions, also vetted by Ray and Associates, that will be asked to each candidate when they meet virtually with student leaders at each of the three traditional high schools in the district: East High, Highland High and West High.
Each candidate’s conversation with student leaders will be recorded and will be made available on YouTube so all students can watch. For more information, visit the district’s website, www.slcschools.org.
The hope is to name a new superintendent by the end of February or early March. That person would then begin leading the district in the summer, after the end of the current academic year.