School & District Management

Cincinnati Search: Quick, Quiet, and Controversial

By Ann Bradley — October 02, 2002 9 min read
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Rick Williams had three priorities when the Cincinnati school board learned it would need to find a new superintendent. The search, the board president vowed, had to be quick, quiet, and yield a top-notch candidate.

New Visions of Leadership

By announcing its selection last month of Alton Frailey, an administrator from suburban Houston, the board appears to have met those goals. In contrast to the drawn-out searches that many urban school boards conduct, the Cincinnati hunt took just two months and produced a candidate who is generating excitement in the southwestern Ohio city.

Perhaps more noteworthy about the process, however, was its air of extreme secrecy. Consultants recruited candidates who flew to the city with their résumés in hand, so as not to generate a paper trail. Each checked into a downtown hotel under an assumed name. Interviews were conducted Sept. 5; the next day, the board announced that Mr. Frailey was its unanimous choice. His competitors’ names remain a mystery.

Cincinnati’s method of recruitment and selection has not sat well with everyone. The Cincinnati Enquirer is contemplating suing the district in a bid to compel it to turn over the finalists’ résumés. The local teachers’ union also has faulted the stealth of the search.

But some observers say the approach may be a harbinger of future hunts—at least, if big- city school boards are serious about wanting to attract promising candidates.

The more familiar searches—which often involve releasing finalists’ names to the public and holding extensive community meetings with candidates—seem to be recycling the same shrinking pool of applicants. To recruit fresh people, recruiters and administrators say, candidates’ privacy has to be protected so they don’t burn bridges back home.

“It may become a fact of life that board members and communities will not like,” Steven Adamowski, whose last day as the superintendent of the 42,000-student Cincinnati district was Aug. 19, said of secretive searches.

“The people who are good are good because they have relationships in the community where they are successful, and they’re very reluctant to go public, particularly in the early stages,” he said.

‘We Just Don’t Buy It’

When Mr. Adamowski, Mr. Williams, and a recruiting consultant went to the Enquirer‘s editorial board in early July to enlist its aid in conducting a quiet search, they struck out.

Editors at the city’s biggest newspaper not only refused to go along with the plea to keep finalists’ names quiet, they soon filed a blanket request, under Ohio’s open-records law, for all paperwork related to the search. The newspaper also published an editorial calling for an open search.

“We’ve heard their arguments before—that they can’t get the best candidates if they don’t keep quiet—and we just don’t buy it,” said David Wells, the associate editorial-page editor. “These are public jobs, and the public has a right to know who they’re looking at and who they’re not.”

Because candidates who didn’t want to be identified were promised anonymity, the district and its consultants took pains to ensure that no paper records existed on them, said Nancy R. Noeske, the president of PROACT Search Inc., the Milwaukee company that helped Cincinnati in its search.

The school board’s lawyers decided that if finalists delivered their own written materials to the board—and collected them again at the end of their interviews—nothing would be available to give the newspaper under Ohio’s Public Records Act.

“You don’t like to do all of these kinds of things, but as long as it doesn’t violate the laws, that was what we were interested in,” Ms. Noeske said. “We weren’t going to do anything illegal.”

But the newspaper argues that the résumés are public records, regardless of whether they stayed in Cincinnati or returned home with the candidates.

The definition of a public record in Ohio includes anything received by a public entity and used in carrying out its duties, said Jack Greiner, the newspaper’s lawyer. Because school board members received the résumés, read them, and used that information to decide whom to hire as superintendent, the paper argues, the résumés are public records and must be turned over.

“Setting up a procedure, announced in advance, where the materials are to be provided and then returned is, at a minimum, not within the spirit of the Public Records Act,” Mr. Greiner contended.

Jan Leslie, a spokeswoman for the district, said officials had made the records related to the search available to the news media. But the district doesn’t have the finalists’ résumés, she said: “We can’t turn over what we don’t have.”

Candidate Profile

Shortly after his selection was announced, Mr. Frailey told the local media, in fact, that he would never have expressed interest in the job if his name had been made public. Reporters were on the phone to his wife and colleagues in the 32,000-student Spring Branch district in Texas within 15 minutes of the announcement, underscoring his point.

“I knew if my name got out there, I’d have all kinds of folks doing their own investigations, my family would have gotten involved, my children—I just didn’t want to have family exposed to this,” Mr. Frailey, the father of three young children, said in a recent interview.

Since his selection, though, Mr. Frailey said, “I have been an open book.”

Sue Taylor, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, criticized the search as “very closed” and said that school board members had had little time to investigate Mr. Frailey’s background.

“I have major disagreements with how a publicly accountable board conducted the selection process,” Ms. Taylor said. “This was a process that circumvented public-records laws.”

Although Cincinnatians didn’t get a chance to react to the board’s finalists, residents did have opportunities to tell the board what qualities their next schools chief should have.

In designing its search process, the school board decided to put together a profile of the qualities residents wanted in a superintendent. The idea came from the International Center on Collaboration, a Naples, Fla., consulting firm that has worked for the district for several years on such matters as strategic planning.

That company, in turn, subcontracted with PROACT to vet résumés and recruit candidates for the position.

Consultants from both companies interviewed Cincinnatians from lists of names supplied by the school board members. Residents who called or e-mailed to express interest in shaping the profile also were talked to, for a total of about 120 interviews of parents, state and local leaders, business people, teachers, and others.

The consultants gave board members a summary of the interviews. The profile crafted from the responses was shared with the community and posted on the district’s Web site in several versions.

“It was so important to have a process where the community-involvement piece was equitable,” Mr. Williams, the school board president, said. “The community’s role was in helping us shape the profile of the superintendent. We made that very clear publicly. And it was the work of the seven of us to chose which one.”

No ‘Beauty Pageant’

By deciding to withhold finalists’ names from the public, the Cincinnati board also skipped what superintendent candidates often derisively call the “beauty pageant,” in which finalists fly to town and appear at community meetings.

“It becomes a popularity contest,” Ms. Noeske said. “The person who speaks the best or says what a certain segment wants to hear gets the votes of the community, and may not be the best person for the job.”

Typical searches also can take four to six months, she notes. That was time the Cincinnati schools couldn’t afford to waste, district leaders maintain. The district will ask voters to approve a $480 million bond issue in November, for example.

“I didn’t want there to be a long transition period, because then all kinds of mischief occurs,” Mr. Williams said. People who are discontented with the search, he asserted, are really griping about “wanting to be empowered to make their choice and do deals.”

Roger Frazier, the president and a senior partner at the International Center on Collaboration, argues that the Cincinnati board was living up to its obligation to chose a superintendent in tightly managing the search.

“We’re a representative democracy,” he said. “The largest single obligation of the school board is the choice, support, and evaluation of the leader of the district.”

Mr. Adamowski, the former superintendent, helped design the search process for his successor. It was a good fit, he maintained, because Cincinnati schools operate “a little closer to the business model” than some other districts do. “There was some influence relative to how a corporation selects a CEO,” he said.

The Cincinnati board’s quick, quiet search stands in sharp contrast, for instance, to the lengthy public hunt for a chief for the Portland, Ore., schools. Last spring, all four finalists for that job bowed out after meeting with 22 community groups over two days. (“Top Contenders Withdraw From Portland Search,” May 1, 2002.)

Only last month, the Portland school board named James Scherzinger, who had been interim superintendent, to the job.

Mr. Frazier argues that sitting superintendents can cause themselves lasting damage if their job searches become public knowledge. “That relationship goes sour,” he said, “and it degrades to some degree for no other reason than the fact that the community feels abandoned.”

A case in point: Anthony S. Amato, the superintendent of the Hartford, Conn., schools. Applauded nationally for raising test scores, Mr. Amato saw his local support waver after he was an unsuccessful candidate to run the Portland and Philadelphia districts.

The superintendent, who recently called off his job search, said his preference is to have an open process. “At least you know exactly what you’re getting into,” he said. “It’s a real testing ground.”

Cash Reimbursements

While the Cincinnati Enquirer was writing stories listing some of the people who publicly applied for the job, Ms. Noeske and the Florida-based consultants were networking and calling promising administrators to interest them in the position.

Their efforts turned up six finalists for the board’s consideration, only one of whom, Joseph Wise, wanted his name made public. He is the chairman of eSchool Solutions in Orlando, Fla., and a former senior assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., public schools.

The other candidates were phoned and told to make their own arrangements to travel to Cincinnati, to check into the downtown Marriott Hotel as Candidate A, B, or C, and to bring copies of relevant paperwork, including résumés, with them.

The candidates who did not want their names disclosed have since been reimbursed in cash, rather than by check, for their travel expenses, according to Ms. Leslie, the district spokeswoman.

Ms. Noeske interviewed the candidates, took notes, and briefed the school board orally. Those notes and others from the board’s Sept. 6 interviews with the finalists were turned over as public records, although the candidates’ names were omitted.

“We’ve been turning over everything we have, and have done that since the beginning, and we will continue to do that,” said the district’s Ms. Leslie. “We did everything we could to ensure that we had good candidates.”

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including governance, management, and labor relations—is supported by the Broad Foundation.

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