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SPECIAL RECRUITMENT REPORT: The Critical Task of Hiring a New Chief

The ins and outs of this tiresome process can be simple if you know these local and national options. This is one of two stories in a special recruitment report in this issue.
The Cleveland (Ohio) Metropolitan School District hired Proact Search in early 2011 to find a new CEO after Eugene Sanders retired. They hired Eric Gordon, the district’s chief academic officer. Above, he sits with students in the Euclid Park School grand opening in September of 2010.

When the Allendale (N.J.) School District approached Michael Osnato last year for assistance in finding a new superintendent, Osnato knew it could be a challenge. Although the search firm he founded and runs, Leadership Advantage, had completed 80 school executive searches in New Jersey, a governor-mandated pay cap on superintendent salaries, based on district enrollment, had shrunk candidate pools already affected by retiring baby boomers.

"The fiscal incentive to become a superintendent, in some places, is not what it was," he says, "so you have to be ambitious, and you have to want to take a chance on leadership to become a superintendent."

When Osnato conducted Allendale's previous search in 2004, he received 60 applicants; in 2011, there were only 30.

Though New Jersey's salary cap is unusual, nearly all districts have requirements, fiscal and otherwise, that make finding a new superintendent challenging at best. Promoting an existing employee, though straightforward, is not always the best option for filling the chief seat. Assistant or deputy superintendents may not have sufficient experience in the area most important to the district, says Ricardo Medina, who directs the Superintendent Leadership Academy of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents.

Furthermore, many smaller districts do not have assistant superintendents, and other senior administrators, such as tenured principals, may not want to leave secure positions for contract work under a higher degree of public scrutiny.

Interim superintendents, hired to lead the district while the school board finds a replacement, have become a popular option in the last decade, says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "It's not uncommon that the interim superintendent winds up getting the job," he says, "but there can also be an upfront proviso that they cannot be an applicant."

This kind of agreement can occur when the board does not want to have the interim as an easy fallback option (and perhaps settle for less than what they envisioned in a new chief executive), when there are internal candidates who may perceive the interim leader's incumbency as an unfair advantage, or when the interim does not want the job.

For most of the more than 14,000 districts nationwide, the critical task of hiring a new chief executive is entrusted to the school board. There are a few exceptions, such as when there are mayoral takeovers of districts and the mayor appoints a CEO. As board members rarely have the requisite experience or time to search, they often turn to private search firms or state associations of school boards.

Given the teetering economy, hiring new leaders has become an increasingly frequent task. According to Doug Eadie, author of The Five Habits of High-Impact School Boards, superintendent turnover has increased nationwide in the last few decades. "Many districts around the country have had to go through some very painful downsizing, and in that situation, the relationship at the top can become very stressed," says Eadie, who is also president and CEO of Doug Eadie & Company and a specialist in relations between boards and chief executives. "This leads to shorter tenures and frequent calls for new leadership."

According to an AASA national study of 2,000 superintendents in 2010, the average superintendent tenure is three and a half years; furthermore, half of the respondents said that they did not plan to remain superintendents through the year 2015.

Start Early

Even with help, finding a new superintendent is a big job. Starting early is critical, says Sharon Golan, president of the board for Lake Forest (Ill.) High School District 115. In 2004, District 115, with 1,710 students, entered a shared services model with the Lake Forest School District 67, which serves 2,028 K8 students in the same area. At that time, the superintendent for District 67, Harry Griffith, took over administration of District 115.

While sharing a superintendent saves money and enhances continuity between primary and secondary levels, each district retains the independence of having its own board. As a result, Golan says, "There were 14 school board members involved in the search, and it was like herding cats."

Lake Forest's search began when Griffith announced in 2008 that he would retire in 2012 after 18 years of service. The boards began working together to find help for the hiring process. After looking on the Internet, they narrowed their options to three local firms and contacted references for each. Though all three had satisfied customers, Lake Forest settled on School ExecConnect, an Illinois-based firm that works for states throughout the Midwest. "What we liked about this firm was that the two people [Linda Hanson and David Clough] were retired superintendents and this is what they do full-time," says Golan. Each board paid a base fee of $9,750 to School ExecConnect and shared costs for expenses (such as travel for consultants and candidates) up to $3,800 as well as $4,000 in advertising fees.

The Lake Forest boards invited residents in both districts to participate in stakeholder forums, eventually holding more than 20 meetings. They also collected community feedback through an online survey. Using this information, Hanson and Clough reduced the field of about 100 applicants to six finalists whom they felt would be most able to foster cooperation within the shared services model, and communicate a clear agenda for progress to all stakeholders. The boards chose four candidates for meetings with teachers, board staff, parents and community members.

The two-year search ended with the hiring of Michael Simeck as superintendent of District 67 and District 115 on a three-year contract, which included a $220,000 salary and a $30,000 stipend. Simeck, who starts in July, has served as superintendent of the Berkley School District in Oak Park, Mich., and is working toward a doctorate in educational administration.

Leverage Local Insight

Unlike the Lake Forest boards, administrators of the Durant Community School District in Iowa, with 729 K12 students, had only a few months to find a replacement for their outgoing superintendent, Duane Bark, who resigned in February 2011 to lead the Markesan District Schools in Wisconsin. With local firms having the advantage of proximity and familiarity, Durant's board hired retired superintendents Glenn Pelecky and Dale Barber of Iowa's Major Consulting Group.

Over two and a half months in early 2011, the consulting group conducted community focus groups, worked with board members to define the qualities of their desired leader, and fielded more than 30 applications. The board interviewed a handful of candidates, and in May of 2011 offered a three-year, $108,000 contract to Duane Bennett, then the superintendent of the Wellsville-Middletown R-1 School District in Missouri.

According to board secretary Lesa Kephart, the district was looking for an administrator who could address declining enrollment and who also had solid financial skills. "In today's climate, it's important to have somebody who knows how to work a budget and who can do pay negotiations," she says.

Tap Talent Nationwide

To recruit from the widest range of potential leaders, some districts turn to national executive search firms, such as Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates in Illinois, and Ray and Associates in Iowa. In early 2011, the Cleveland (Ohio) Metropolitan School District hired Illinois-based Proact Search to find a new CEO after Eugene Sanders announced his retirement in December 2010. In the Cleveland district, which serves more than 44,000 students in 122 schools, the mayor appoints the governing school board and the CEO. To identify the best candidates, however, Mayor Frank Jackson appointed a 15-person search subcommittee to work with Proact and make recommendations to the board.

Sarasota new suptProact CEO Gary Solomon says the firm knows how to approach recruitment. "We don't believe in just calling friends of friends, or people we know, or people we work with," Solomon says. "We do unique research for each project, both within and outside of K12, and recruit directly to each person we believe is a good fit."

With seven full-time employees and more than 100 independent contractors, Proact specializes in districts with over 10,000 students, and has conducted superintendent searches from Oakland, Calif., to New Orleans. Solomon says a typical search costs about $20,000 to $30,000 and takes two to three months.

In Cleveland, Proact took 10 weeks to field 125 applications and then presented the committee with the nine candidates who best matched its requirements, which included budget and capital management experience as well as a proven ability to enact educational reform. The committee then selected three finalists for the board to interview. In June 2011, however, the board decided on a candidate who had been identified by Proact but previously eliminated by the search committee: Eric Gordon, the district's chief academic officer and a primary author of its "Academic Transformation Plan," which directly addressed low-performing schools and supported innovations in school organization and pedagogy.

Following Mayor Jackson's approval, Gordon was hired on a one-year contract that started in July 2011 and included the possibility of extension based on performance. The offered salary, at $230,000, was actually 12.5 percent less than that of the retiring CEO.

Ask Your State Association

Another option for the superintendent search is consulting with the state association of school boards. State associations' services vary widely, from listing vacancies on their Web sites to a full-fledged search consultancy. (The National Association of School Boards has links to each state's specifications for superintendent searches, at In many cases, the fees for member services are lower than comparable private options; furthermore, the state association can be more knowledgeable about local leaders.

"With the state boards association, you're going to get a good group of in-state candidates, and you save the district some money," says John Leuenberger, president of the school board for the Lena-Winslow School District 202 (Ill.), which serves about 900 K12 students.

When Lena-Winslow's superintendent, Jane Michael, announced her retirement in 2010, school board members contacted the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) for assistance. The IASB's $4,500 fee was about $3,000 cheaper than what Ray & Associates had charged the district for its previous search five years before.

Starting in the fall of 2010, board members for the rural, 960-student district worked with the IASB representative, Dawn Miller, to advertise the position and send a recruitment brochure to potential candidates nationwide. They were looking for well-rounded leaders who could independently handle the needs of a smaller district with no assistant superintendents.

Their search required two rounds; however, as the initial effort only received 15 applications, none of which were a fit. The following summer, Miller gathered 36 applicants and presented 12 of them to the board, which chose five people to interview.

The board concluded the search in November 2011 with the hire of Tom Chiles, the principal of nearby Galesburg High School. Chiles had a financial background, a bonus while the state is in "financial straits," Leuenberger says. He starts his job this July.

Though arduous, the job of finding a new superintendent is vital and rewarding. Reflecting on her first experience, Golan from Lake Forest says, "We really thought, and continue to believe, that hiring the superintendent is the single most important job that a school board has."