New Philly schools superintendent plans listening tour

Dr. Tony Watlington (1)
Tony Watlington
School District of Philadelphia

Tony B. Watlington Sr., the School District of Philadelphia’s superintendent pick, is planning a listening tour to learn more about his new environs.

Just 15 months ago, he was doing the same exercise, after taking over the top job in North Carolina’s Rowan-Salisbury School District.

The shift is substantial for Watlington, a career educator. Rowan-Salisbury has around 18,000 students — to the Philadelphia district’s 200,000-plus — and a fraction of the city schools’ budget.

“Let me first say, I’m very excited to be here,” Watlington said Friday during an introductory news conference. “I feel very welcomed here in the School District of Philadelphia.”

Though his first official day as superintendent isn’t until June 16, Watlington told reporters he intends to begin house shopping immediately.

As part of an onboarding process, he will meet twice weekly with Philadelphia’s current superintendent, William Hite, and other high-level administrators, officials said.

Watlington said his first priority is to meet with stakeholders, including school board members, parent groups and elected leaders. Then, he wants to get “knee deep into fully understanding” the district’s aging buildings and plot steps to improve academic achievement.

The Board of Education (BOE) is set to ratify Watlington’s five-year contract at a meeting on Thursday, and he is in line to make $340,000 a year, on par with what Hite would have received, officials said.

Hite revealed in September that he would not be returning next school year after about a decade as superintendent.

His tenure has, at times, been tumultuous, with heavy criticism for his administration’s handling of lead and asbestos in school buildings, but Mayor Jim Kenney has credited his leadership for bringing stability to the district.

Jerry Jordan, longtime president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said Watlington was clearly the best choice of the three candidates presented by the school board.

“Dr. Watlington showed a seemingly very sincere commitment to working in a truly collaborative and transparent fashion,” Jordan said in a statement. “He is hailed, in every forum I have seen, as an excellent educator.”

City Councilmember Helen Gym noted that Watlington is the first superintendent since a city-appointed school board was instituted following two decades of state control.

“I look forward to sitting down with Superintendent Watlington in the coming weeks to discuss a vision for our school system that truly puts our children and families first,” Gym, a longtime public education advocate, added in a statement.

The BOE selected Watlington, Baltimore City Chief of Schools John L. Davis Jr. and Illinois Deputy Education Officer Krish Mohip as superintendent finalists. All three participated in a series of in-person and virtual meetings last month.

None of the candidates had ties to Philadelphia, though Watlington was born near Fort Dix and spent time growing up in Burlington County.

Before heading the Rowan-Salisbury district, Watlington served as a top schools administrator in Guilford County, North Carolina, where he also began his teaching career in 1994.

“I bring a passion for student achievement and working with students in our communities,” he said Friday.

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