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Opportunity in schools' search

Earl Lennard is a dull but competent school superintendent whose retirement presents both challenges and opportunities for the fast-growing Hillsborough County school district. The next leader should be a capable administrator who can guide the nation's 10th-largest district beyond educational mediocrity in a state and region increasingly diverse and strapped for school funding. The new superintendent should build on Lennard's solid legacy by showing more political daring, opening the district's decisionmaking culture, involving schools more in shaping the community and strengthening opportunities for black, Hispanic and other historically disadvantaged students.

Lennard, who will leave at the end of the school year after 41 years with the district and eight as superintendent, came into the job with a cautious streak that reinforced the worst instincts of the school bureaucracy. That changed with an early and public flogging by U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich. In 1998, she blamed the district's "apathy" as she refused to relinquish federal court oversight of school desegregation efforts. That made Lennard more sensitive to public concern and more aggressive about resolving a range of longstanding problems. Within two years a better framework emerged for ending a 40-year battle over racism in the schools. He also made some progress in whittling down a bloated bureaucracy and moved quickly to address chronic school crowding and academic achievement.

Lennard's successor will inherit both the progress and the unfinished business he leaves. The new school choice plan which replaced court-ordered busing may need more money for facilities and programs if the choices fail to encourage students to attend schools outside their neighborhoods. In the first year of choice, it already is clear the district needs to better inform parents and market the voluntary integration program. A former administrator's public complaints about mismanagement and waste highlighted the district's need to become more open and accountable.

The new chief must instill a greater sense of urgency, and feel comfortable as the public face of an institution that plays a major role in how neighborhoods develop. A new willingness to build smaller schools in the city center will help integrate the classrooms and create magnets for reviving older inner-city neighborhoods. While the fast-growing suburbs cannot be ignored, a closer alliance between the schools and local government could help Hillsborough better manage growth by steering families back toward the city where roads and other services already exist. Lennard never quite seemed comfortable on the public stage, but to his credit he took on that role and helped ease school crowding and comfort black families concerned about the district's commitment to integration.

For an agency as big as a good-sized city _ 200,000 students, 31,000 employees, 258 schools and learning centers, 3,200 business partners and a $2-billion operating budget _ it will be tempting for the School Board to look for the skills of a city manager instead of someone who generates ideas and inspires the community by his or her lead. The board has sent the wrong signal by equivocating on whether it will conduct a nationwide search or only look in-house. A national search will raise the game of whoever is selected and offer the board an opportunity to reflect on the district's direction. Taking a shortcut would be foolish.

Correction

Wade Boggs got his 3,000th hit at Tropicana Field. A cutline Wednesday misrepresented the achievement as his 3,000th home run _ which would have merited an entire hall of fame by itself.

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