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Administrator Magazine: Leadership
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The Great Superintendent Search

How the hiring process really works.

If you had Googled the name “Bob Nuñez” five years ago, you might have found a man who plays tennis, one who owns a blasting company in Ohio, and one who is married to a woman named Michelle.

If you had searched a little further, you also might have stumbled across a short newspaper article about a Riverside, California, assistant superintendent by that name being investigated for mishandling more than $100,000 in district funds.

What’s even more incredible is that, just three months later, Nuñez secured a new job upstate, first as human resources director and then to lead East Side Union High School District in San Jose. It seems the board sought almost no input on Nuñez before making him head of Northern California’s largest high school district in 2006. Nor did the district hire a search firm to vet candidates. If it had done either of these things, perhaps it would not have been caught off guard when it had to place Nuñez on administrative leave for similar irregularities this past July. (The details of Nuñez’s hasty departure from Riverside were reported in 2004 and posted by a local blogger in 2005.)

“There’s no question we have been looking at our policies and procedures closely,” says Patricia Martinez-Roach, the district’s current school board president. Martinez-Roach was not on the board that hired Nuñez as superintendent. “It’s clear we need the checks and balances to ensure something like this never happens again.”

Superintendent search season is now in full swing. As of press time, some of the districts in the market for a new chief include St. Paul, Minnesota; Pueblo, Colorado; and Newton, Massachusetts.

Most districts will opt for a traditional search, using professional headhunters—costing between $25,000 and $200,000 depending on the district—to bring in a slate of candidates and then conduct interviews to whittle down the list to a handful of finalists.

In nearly every district, the field will be narrowed to fewer than five candidates before the public ever has a hint at who is in the running. Sometimes the person is hired before his or her name surfaces publicly. It is one of the most secretive processes in the education world.Yet more and more cases such as the missed information in San Jose are forcing boards to question the value of making these decisions behind closed doors—and whether or not it’s worth it to hire a search firm to do the job.

In the Web 2.0 world, the media, blogosphere, and community members may be able to vet a contender better—and faster—than any search firm. Plus, gathering input from the public before a candidate is hired could ensure a better fit down the line.

One board that may do things differently this year is the one running the San Diego Unified School District. The district is about to embark on its third search since 2005, having lost its most recent superintendent, Terry Grier, to Houston, Texas, in late August. There is at least one board member suggesting that this time the district forgo hiring a search firm—as was done the previous two times—and open up the process.

“Each time, the community never heard a word about the process until the deal was done and the person was hired,” says board member Richard Barrera, a recently elected school board member who did not take part in the previous searches. “The upshot is superintendents who jump into a heavily divided community they’ve never met before. And they don’t like the job, so they leave.”

Barrera wants San Diego to get away from the current system where “we go in and poach someone else’s superintendent under the dark of night,” only to lose them quickly. He proposes making the choice in a more open manner, using public forums first to formulate the district’s needs in a superintendent and then to vet the candidates. Anyone vying for the position would have to go before various community groups to present both his credentials and demonstrate his passion for the job. These same stakeholders would then ultimately select the superintendent hired.

Barrera acknowledges this type of search would, no doubt, be longer, and would be unlikely to result in a candidate who pleases everyone. But, he predicts, “We’ll have someone who can unite our community because everyone will have ownership over selecting that person.”

If San Diego ultimately does choose a community vetting process, it will be following the lead of a handful of districts such as Minneapolis and Portland, Maine, which have had mixed but generally successful results.

In 2007, the Minneapolis school board allowed the public to vote on whether to give then-interim superintendent William Green the job permanently or to conduct a national search for another candidate. The community chose to keep Green on, though he now plans to leave the district in June 2010.

Portland’s school board, facing a $2 million deficit, decided last year not to use a search firm to choose its next leader. Instead, board member Sarah Thompson headed up a 30-person selection committee made up entirely of local stakeholders, including parents, administrators, teachers, a student, and two non-parent taxpayers. “We figured, who would know better than our own community what kind of superintendent Portland needed,” Thompson says.

After advertising nationally and locally, a top choice quickly emerged in Jim Morse, who had received Maine’s 2008 Superintendent Leadership Award as head of the smaller Messalonskee district. “But first, we Googled every single contender, and I called every single reference to check out any red flags,” Thompson says. Morse started July 1.

San Diego could also adopt a hybrid approach like the one used in Houston, where the school board hired a search firm, New York–based Heidrick & Struggles, but still involved the community more than ever.

“This was no glossing-over round of public forums,” says board president Lawrence Marshall. “They did exhaustive interviews of all the players here in Houston. And, in the end, they were able, even better than we were, to really crystallize what our next superintendent should look like.”

While thorough and relatively open, the selection process was still conducted in private during the final stages. Grier’s name was only presented to the public once he was a finalist.

Of course, it’s not just board members who want to avoid opening up a can of worms with an open process. Candidates often require an assurance of confidentiality to participate. Superintendents around the country this past summer no doubt took note when Florida’s Hernando County school board dismissed its superintendent, Wayne Alexander, after learning Alexander was pursuing other positions in New England.

Privacy and a professional search firm are no guarantee of a good choice, however. Just look at what happened to Barbara Erwin. Erwin was the superintendent in Kentucky’s St. Charles district when she was being considered for the post of commissioner of education in 2007. When it was announced that Erwin was a finalist for the job, reporters at the Louisville Courier-Journal quickly uncovered multiple errors and exaggerations on her resume, including awards she’d never won and presentations she’d never made. If a district doesn’t do its own vetting, the media and the blogosphere will do the job for them.         

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