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Landing the Chief

Superintendent headhunters match positions and candidates.

Last April, Carlos Garcia was at the National School Boards Association annual convention in San Francisco when he recognized a familiar face approaching. It was Bill Attea, chairman of the board of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, the nation's largest superintendent search firm. Seven years ago, when Garcia was superintendent of the Fresno (Calif.) Unified School District, Attea had recruited him for the top job at the Clark County School District in Nevada, home to Las Vegas and the nation's fifth-largest school system. Now Attea had another offer.

His firm had been hired to conduct a national search for the next superintendent of the 55,000-student San Francisco Unified School District. Although the city boasted some of the highest-achieving urban schools in the country, the district was beset with declining enrollments, budget shortfalls, school closings, teacher layoffs, a ferocious student achievement gap, and the lingering stench of an acrimonious parting with the prior superintendent. Attea asked Garcia if he would apply for the job.

The request took Garcia by surprise. He'd grown up in California and had once been a middle school principal in San Francisco. But he'd left education two years earlier, after five years as Clark County superintendent, to take a corporate position with McGraw-Hill in Las Vegas. So he wasn't looking for a job when he and his wife, Gail, returned to San Francisco to attend the NSBA convention last spring. "I don't know," he told Attea. "Let me think about it."

But around that time Gail Garcia was approaching her 50th birthday, and for a birthday gift, she said she'd like to live in San Francisco. Garcia applied for the job.

Using Consultants

Commercial search consulting firms such as Attea's, almost unheard of just a generation ago, today help fill a small but growing number of the more than 2,000 superintendent openings that arise each year in the nation's nearly 14,000 public school districts. It's unlikely that the nation's largest school systems, such as the 225 districts with more than 25,000 students, would even consider hiring a new CEO without first employing a consultant to do their recruiting and vetting. In the highly charged, self-contained worlds they serve, search consultants wield tremendous clout. They help school boards identify a district's needs while simultaneously serving as a buff er between board members, the public and aspiring applicants. Over the course of a search process that typically lasts four months and could cost a district more than $100,000, the consultant may serve as inspirational speaker, sounding board, data cruncher, forensic investigator and grand inquisitor. Ultimately, it is the consultant who anoints a short list of candidates to be presented to board members, a ritual that secures the consultant's role as kingmaker.

Although concrete numbers are elusive, it's a good bet that most superintendent searches nationwide are still handled by local school boards and other nonprofi tentities. And according to the National School Boards Association, 37 state school boards associations conduct superintendent searches for member boards. Cost is certainly a factor. A few thousand school districts nationwide have fewer than 500 students. "When you get into small-town U.S.A., they're just not going to pay $10,000 to $15,000 for a search," says Thomas Glass, a professor of leadership at the University of Memphis who has studied the superintendent's role. "Why should a district with a thousand kids hire a search firm? The cost can become a political liability for the board."

A Growth Industry

But interviews with superintendents, school board members, search consultants, and others in education suggest that more school boards are hiring commercial search firms to help them arrive at what will likely be the most important vote they ever take. "It seems to be a growth industry," says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. And Attea's firm is handling the search for a new executive director.

Some firms do just a handful of searches a year; others may do dozens. Some have expertise within a particular state or region; others go nationwide. In West Hartford, Conn., former superintendents George Goens and Louis Esparo lead a two-man firm, Goens/Esparo, that handles about 10 superintendent searches a year, almost all in Connecticut. Leadership Associates, a California company, conducts about 20 searches a year, all for California school districts, although Managing Director Rene Townsend says roughly half the searches are national in scope.

A relative handful of firms conduct national searches, primarily for larger, urban school districts. Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler, a management consulting firm with offices in New York, California and Oregon, has led recent superintendent searches in Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

Heidrick & Struggles, an international executive recruiting firm that's led searches for a new CEO at Walt Disney Co. and a new commissioner for Major League Baseball, also completes more than 50 national superintendent searches a year. The Chicago-based firm has been hired in recent years in Atlanta and New York City. Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, based in Glenview, Ill., performed 60 superintendent searches in 2006 and will complete another 75 this year, more than any other search firm in the country, according to CEO Hank Bangser. "Clearly the business of superintendent search work is growing," Bangser says.

And search consultants say the recruiting process has become more difficult in recent years, with the first wave of baby-boomer superintendents retiring and fewer candidates willing to endure the increasing rigors of a school district's highest office. Superintendents, school board members, search consultants, and others in the education field cite growing time demands, greater public scrutiny, and what many consider to be unrealistic standards imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

A typical search will yield 30 to 40 candidates now, Bangser says. Ten years ago, the figure was double that.

Hiring Expertise

Glass says a school board in need of a superintendent must first determine the scope of the search-and how much it can afford to spend. "Probably if they want to do a national search, a search firm is a good option," says Glass, co-author of The State of the American School Superintendency. "If it's going to be a statewide search, maybe the state school boards association is the best option. If it's a small district, they might just put it out electronically and then let candidates apply."

David Derynoski, chairman of the board of education for Southington (Conn.) Public Schools, has taken part in hiring two superintendents in his fifteen years on the board. In both cases, the board hired a search firm to recruit and screen candidates for the 7,000-student district. For the first search, eight years ago, the board hired Richard Dempsey, a solo practitioner. The more recent search took place this spring, when the board hired Goens/Esparo to recruit candidates for a position eventually filled by Joseph Erardi, who was then superintendent of the Watertown (Conn.) School System.

The experiences have made Derynoski a big believer in using search firms, rather than school boards, to recruit superintendent candidates. A search firm brings a level of expertise and a network of professional contacts that school board members can't match, he says. Most importantly, he says, a search firm can ensure that the candidates' confidentiality will be preserved throughout the process. "For a board to conduct its own search, I think it's an effort in futility," Derynoski says.

"For a board to conduct its own search, I think it's an effort in futility." -David Derynoski, chairman, Board of Education, Southington (Conn.) Public Schools

So what does a school board get when it spends tens of thousands of dollars on a search consultant? The firms point to the experience of their consultants-typically, former administrators-and their ability to work their professional networks to find the best person for the job. Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates employs 110 consultants in 27 states, Bangser says, nearly all of them retired administrators.

Townsend says her firm's strength is rooted in the combined experience of its nine partners, all former superintendents. "We know the work. We know the leadership," she says. "We have a big network of people throughout the state. We're still involved in all kinds of organizations. Recruiting and reference-checking are two main things a firm can do. If you're trusted, you get the true information on the background of a candidate. That's where having trusted advisors that know people in the field can help you get accurate information."

Steps to Success

The procedural details of a superintendent search may vary from firm to firm, but most follow a familiar path. Here are the main steps:

-- Hold an Initial Meeting. In meetings with the school board, teachers, parents, students, and civic and business leaders-pretty much anyone with an interest in the outcome-the consultant will formulate a description of what the district wants in its next superintendent. In the San Francisco search, Attea met with more than 30 interest groups and the 27-member community advisory committee.

-- Solicit Candidates. The consultant solicits candidates by placing ads in education journals, asking for nominations from associates in the field, and approaching sitting superintendents in other districts. Hamilton says that he sends 6,000 letters to his contacts when scouring the field in a national search-"to penetrate every circle of personal or professional acquaintance that is relevant to the job."

-- Narrow the Field. Once a pool of candidates is compiled, the consultant winnows the field, typically by conducting in-person interviews.

-- Identify Semi-Finalists. The consultant chooses five to 10 semifinalists (the board usually determines the number beforehand) to present to the board.

-- Interview Candidates. Board members interview the semifinalists. In many cases, this is the first time that the board meets the candidates. Board members typically inquire about the candidates' views on budget matters, curriculum, and test scores, among a myriad of topics. But George Goens believes school boards should look beyond the standard sets of numbers that tend to define a school system. "The interview process has to focus not only on metrics but also how that person responds, the feeling they engender in those interviews," Goens says. "Leadership is all about relationships-how a person is going to relate to teachers, parents, and students."

Garcia says he used his time with the San Francisco board to ask pointed questions of his own. He was well aware of the board's recent rocky past, and he set out to discern whether he could function with the seven-member board, three of whom were just a few months on the job. "I flat-out told them, 'You as a board have a horrible reputation. My question to you is, 'Are you willing to put aside things that have happened in the past that possibly divided you and move forward? And are you willing to be part of team that will solve things?'

"I think the trend now is going toward a more contained search because of the competition for candidates." -George Goens, co-director, Goens/Esparo LLC

"Finally one of board members realized, 'Well, you're interviewing us.' I said, 'Absolutely. I don't need a job.' I kind of laid out my cards in front of them. I wasn't arrogant about it. I already knew that these are pretty good people. You can only do so much as a superintendent. People have to meet you halfway. You're only as good as the team you have, and in this case the board's the team."

-- Tour Districts. The board then conducts a second round of interviews with two or three finalists. Some boards also will invite the finalists' spouses to the return visit, which might include a meal and a tour of the district. In San Francisco, the board took Carlos and Gail Garcia to dinner on the day of his second interview. "My wife really had a great time with the board and really enjoyed their company," Garcia says. "That really made our decision that this was something we wanted to do."

-- Conduct Background Checks. Once a single finalist is identified, the consultant will check into the candidate's background, verifying details on his or her r?sum?, looking for any circumstance in his or her personal life or professional career that might signal trouble. Bangser says Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates hires a private investigator to conduct what's known as a seven-point check that includes scrutinizing criminal records, driving records, and newspaper articles and checking a candidate's employment history-even marital history-in an effort to uncover potential red flags.

-- Announce Results. If the background check comes up clean, the board will hire a new superintendent.

Public and Private Recruiting

Another reason that school boards hire search firms these days is to keep the recruiting process under wraps, as more school districts-even candidates themselves-are demanding confidentiality. It's part of what Richard Schwab, the dean of the school of education at the University of Connecticut, calls the "professionalization" of the search process. For the candidates, the reasons are simple: A superintendent in one district who is identified as a candidate in another district will quickly lose the support of the local school board, not to mention the district's teachers, parents, and community at large. And if the job falls through, the superintendent will have some explaining to do. "I think the trend now is going toward a more contained search because of the competition for candidates," Goens says.

That's where the search firm comes in. While sitting superintendents might be reluctant to discuss job openings with an out-of-town school board or advisory committee, they might feel more comfortable with a professional search consultant, confident that the process will be kept confidential.

When a school board hires a consultant to conduct a superintendent search, the board may never know who applied for the job until the consultant delivers the semifinalists. Only when the board identifies a single finalist as the leading candidate, setting in motion the background checks, does the notion of confidentiality go out the window.

San Francisco's New Chief

The last time San Francisco hired a superintendent, in 2000, the school board appointed a community advisory committee to conduct public interviews of candidates. This time around, board chairman Mark Sanchez says, the board wanted a more closed process. When it was time to meet the semifinalists, the board scheduled interviews at the San Francisco Airport, a location designed to avoid scrutiny from the public and the press. The secrecy was not as vital for Garcia, who was not a sitting superintendent and who had already informed his associates at McGraw-Hill that he had applied for the job. Still, the cloak-and-dagger routine made an impact. "You kind of felt like you were in a James Bond movie," Garcia recalls. Although board meetings are normally open to the public, because it was a personnel matter the meeting was legal.

Public or Confidential Search?

Houston says that some school boards conduct public forums with superintendent candidates. But he views the public forums as more of a contrivance, a dogand-pony show that is more of a popularity contest and that lacks more thoughtful assessments of each candidate's strengths and weaknesses. "There are boards out there that will bring multiple candidates in front of the district and parade them in front of the district," Houston says. "To me, that's a beauty contest, that's not a superintendent search. That's like asking Miss Alabama how she would bring about world peace."

Townsend says Leadership Associates won't even accept a job that requires the firm to conduct public forums with candidates. "If the board wants that kind of a search, we're not the firm for them," Townsend says. "We only do confidential searches. You get your best candidates if it's confidential. They're not going to apply if people know they're looking for a job outside the district."

To Hamilton, the question of confidentiality poses a doubled-edged dilemma. "This is one of the genuine questions in life," he says. "There is no cost-free decision to make. If you do have a public review phase, it's almost certain that there will be no one in your pool who will be a sitting superintendent of a district of comparable size."

"If you're trusted, you get the true information on the background of a candidate." -Rene Townsend, managing director, Leadership Associates

The flip side? "If you don't announce a public review process, then you-the board-are going to take heat throughout the process," Hamilton says.

Although Garcia never faced a public forum, his name did surface in news reports that identified him as the leading candidate several weeks before the San Francisco school board went public with its choice. The six semifinalists that Attea delivered to the board included four Latino men, one Latino woman, and one white man. Sanchez said board members were surprised at the ethnic mix of the semifinalists-"There just aren't many Latino superintendents in big cities," he says-but impressed by the caliber of the group. "At the end of the day," he says, "we got the best candidate for the job."

Finally, on June 13, following a six-month, $70,000 nationwide search that began with a field of 30 candidates, the San Francisco Unified School Board announced it had hired Garcia. Sanchez says Garcia has already started to pay dividends. As the school year approached, the board and the teachers' union remained deadlocked in contract mediation. After an all-night session, Garcia took the union leader aside and hammered it out. "He wanted it settled, at least tentatively, before the school year opened," Sanchez says. "It's demoralizing to open school without a contract."

As for the new superintendent, he had a good feeling about the board. "I was still wondering, Is this a team that's workable? And right now the jury is out."

The long search for San Francisco's new superintendent came with something of a warranty. If Garcia-or any other candidate placed by Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates-should leave his position within a year, the firm will conduct a second search at no charge outside expenses. Bangser is confident that won't happen. In the firm's 21-year history, he says, about 90 percent of the candidates placed by the firm either retired from those positions or still serve in them.

Personal Observations

The superintendent search process is bound to impart lessons. Here are some observations from those in the know:

"Goens/Esparo did a great job. From the beginning the communication was excellent. They were very professional." -David Derynoski, chairman, Board of Education, Southington (Conn.) Public Schools

"I thought Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates did a good job of recognizing that you really do need to keep the applicant posted of what's going on."

"I think it's important that an applicant ask a lot of questions of the search firm. Once you are in the interview process, I don't believe you should oversell yourself. People ought to know who you are. I really think when a board and superintendent finally reach agreement, it's got to be a situation where you're compatible with the group." -Carlos Garcia, superintendent, San Francisco Unified School District

"The search committee or board can always bring something to the table that a consultant can't. They know the district better than the search consultant. If you don't get them involved, you lose the value of having them there at all." -Edward K. Hamilton, chairman, Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler

"In most cases, in any kind of decent school district, they want a leader that is not available. They're not looking for people who are out of work and looking for jobs. They're looking for people who are happy and successful."

"Fit is a big part of the process. You get the wrong person in the wrong district and it's a disaster for both parties." -Paul Houston, executive director, American Association of School Administrators

"At the outset I was very adamant that we have as open a process as possible. I learned that's not what happens. Best-case scenario, I would want the community to know who the candidates are and weigh in. But that's not feasible."

"Commercial search firms tend to have their own stable of candidates. Knowing that's the case, or thinking that's the case, we actually thought that gave Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates the advantage over the California School Boards Association. We thought it [the Hazard law firm] would have names from all over the country." -Mark Sanchez, chairman, Board of Education, San Francisco Unified School District

"The committee decided they would do the search on their own. They had 20 candidates. They narrowed it down to 12, then narrowed it to 4, then did site visits with all four. Then they narrowed it down to 2, then they chose me."

"Respect the process. Sometimes that's the harder part for school committees. They'll fall in love with a candidate, so to speak, and they'll cut the process short rather than carry it out. And sometimes they don't get the best match when that happens. The most successful matches come from honoring that process." -Elizabeth Sorrell, superintendent, Carver (Mass.) Public Schools.

Christopher Hann is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.