There's a lot to like in Marvin Connelly Jr.'s life story. The man who will become Cumberland County's school superintendent got to know Fayetteville the way generations of men and women have — as a soldier. Connelly was an intelligence officer in the 82nd Airborne Division and he served in the first Gulf War.
When he left the Army, he started a career in education on the ground floor — as a teacher assistant in Wake County. A special-needs teaching job followed, as did assistant principal and principal positions. He ended up as the No. 2 administrator in Wake County schools, the largest system in the state. At 55, he's the chief of staff and strategic planner for the school system. And he's "thrilled about the opportunity to serve Cumberland County Schools."
Connelly, who was introduced on Wednesday, wasn't the school board's unanimous choice. Two board members preferred another candidate, but Connelly appeared unfazed by that. "We'll work with all nine board members," he said. "We'll look forward to working with them."
We wish the public knew who the other top choices for the job were. Knowing the candidates and their accomplishments would help the public better gauge the job that school board members are doing for us. Unfortunately, the school board is more given to secrecy than most of the municipal boards in Cumberland County. It sought to involve the public in the superintendent search through a survey and a public forum near the beginning of the search. But when it came time to winnow the applicants to a list of finalists, the work was done behind closed doors — as was the final decision about hiring Connelly.
We don't expect the board to lose its penchant for secrecy anytime soon, but we do hope our new superintendent is more inclined toward transparency.
He certainly set out the right priorities when he spoke briefly last week. He said he wants to develop a new strategic plan for the school system, designed to seek higher levels of excellence for all students. He said he'll involve students, parents, teachers, school system leaders, community partners and the school board in that project. And his stated priorities were just right: "We must graduate college- and career-ready students who can collaborate, communicate, think critically and who are creative so that all our students can compete in an increasingly interconnected world."
Those are exactly the attributes our children need to develop, and it's refreshing to hear an education leader embrace the concept of critical thinking, an element that has increasingly gone missing from local, state and national discourse about the big issues we face. In a world of fake news and bloviating politicians, it's crucial that we are raising future voters who can sift through the noise and find the truth.
This county's school system will also be called upon to play a central role in efforts to reverse one of the most damaging, persistent problems of generational poverty in the country. Children born into poor families here will fare worse than those in almost any other urban area in the country. Breaking that cycle will require the school system's innovative efforts to cultivate in our most impoverished young people those skills in collaboration, communication and critical thinking.
There's a big job ahead for Connelly and the community. We have some great, innovative schools in the Cumberland County system, but we do not have a school system that has achieved greatness. We hope that Connelly's hiring was another step in that direction.