When Tony Smith took the helm as superintendent of Oakland schools nearly four years ago, he inherited a financially struggling district without direction and a fractious board that sometimes lacked basic decorum.

Smith understood that dramatic improvement in Oakland's public schools was a necessary catalyst for driving social improvement throughout the East Bay.

He developed a road map for turning Oakland schools into community programs that integrate academics with essential support, including health care, for students. He similarly earned well-deserved praise for launching a program to eliminate disproportionate suspension rates for African-American students.

Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Tony Smith, right, listens to public comments at a board meeting, Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Oakland,
Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Tony Smith, right, listens to public comments at a board meeting, Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Oakland, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff)

Yet, he had to balance vision with financial reality. It wasn't easy. He recognized that the district had too many schools for the declining enrollment it served. The inevitable school closings prompted loud and predictable community protests, including demonstrations in front of his home.

Despite the challenges, Smith led with grace. He was the right person at the right time for a district that desperately needed true leadership.

Then Smith stunned us last week with his announcement that he would resign June 30 so that he, his wife and his children could be closer to his ailing father-in-law in Chicago.

We deeply respect his commitment to family first. It's the sort of personal integrity that has influenced his leadership.

His departure will leave a void. But thanks to his hard work and the wisdom of the voters, it's one that can be filled. The district seems headed in the right direction, with, after the November elections, trustees who can agree, or agree to disagree amicably.

Board civility will make the district more attractive to prospective superintendent applicants. Trustees need someone with strong motivational skills and a deep understanding of the complexity of the community, but not someone who wants to create a new blueprint for the district.

It already has one.

Trustees should take their time and carefully vet those seeking the job. Last time, in selecting Smith, they opted for the best candidate, not the most experienced. Smith had been at the helm of the much smaller Emery Unified, and then served as deputy superintendent for instruction, innovation and social justice in the San Francisco Unified School District.

This was his first crack at leading a major metropolitan district. But he was also from Oakland and invested in the community. He brought a special energy.

That's not to say that the next superintendent must also be from Oakland. And we certainly don't expect a Smith clone. At the same time, we want to see the district hire someone who will be willing to enthusiastically implement the hard-fought path forward that has been established during Smith's tenure.

We feel that the new superintendent must bring a sense of leadership and personality that matches the significant challenges ahead and who respects the foundation Smith leaves behind.