School & District Management

In Public Glare, Top Job Candidates Feel Burned

By Lynn Olson — March 05, 1997 7 min read

James A. Fleming will never forget the day in 1993 when he flew to Kentucky for what he thought would be a quiet, exploratory interview with the Louisville school board.

As his flight landed, Mr. Fleming had no idea that he was about to walk smack dab into a full-blown media circus.

“We stepped off the plane to a panel of blaring lights, television cameras going, microphones stuck in my face,” recalled Mr. Fleming, the superintendent of the Capistrano, Calif., schools. Except for his board members, he hadn’t told anyone back in California that he was looking for a new job.

“The next day there was a huge story in my local paper,” said Mr. Fleming, who ended up staying in Capistrano. “I spent about a year doing damage control and correcting the perception that I was simply looking for a way to leave.”

Unlike high-ranking executives in the private sector, school superintendents who apply for new jobs often do so in the harsh glare of media attention--even in the most preliminary stages of the process.

‘Humiliating Process’

Many educators believe such scrutiny simply goes with the territory when the taxpayers ultimately write the paychecks. But some superintendents who have been burned say the exposure has gone too far.

“I think it’s a terribly humiliating process,” said John A. Murphy, a former schools chief in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and Prince George’s County, Md. “I would never again be a candidate for a superintendency of a school district that would require you to go before the public in open competition with three or four other candidates.”

Few question the public’s right to scrutinize prospective school leaders, given the importance and enormous visibility of the superintendent’s job. But as the expectation for public involvement in the selection process has grown, it has become difficult to keep the names of applicants confidential even initially.

“I think it’s getting more intense,” said Susan N. Jernigan, a partner at Sockwell and Associates, a consulting firm in Charlotte, N.C. “Once you’ve involved large groups of people, you’ve just about made it impossible to maintain confidentiality.”

The most recent high-profile educator to feel the sting is Bertha O. Pendleton, the longtime superintendent of the San Diego public schools. When school board members in the 130,000-student district learned this winter that she was a finalist to head the Dallas public schools, they immediately announced a search for her replacement--without meeting with her first.

The board’s actions inflamed educators and members of the city’s black community, who viewed it as an insult to someone who had worked for the district for some 40 years. Ms. Pendleton, who is African-American, said the experience was far from pleasant.

“You wish there could be another way,” she said in an interview last week. “I think it really boiled down to a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication.”

She and the San Diego board have since hammered out an agreement under which the board will delay its search for her successor until mid-June. The 62-year-old Ms. Pendleton, who was not offered the Dallas post, has a contract that expires June 30, 1998.

‘A Turncoat’

The San Diego flap illustrates the high tensions that public disclosure of finalists’ names can bring. “People claim you’re disloyal, that you’re not being faithful to the people who hired you,” said Mr. Murphy, who speaks from firsthand experience.

In 1995, he was the subject of bitter criticism in North Carolina after news leaked that he was a leading candidate to head the troubled Kansas City, Mo., schools. He later withdrew from the running.

“Regardless of the quality of the job that you’re doing,” he said recently, “they call you a turncoat.”

Mr. Murphy has left the public sector and is now the vice president for educational services for the Florida-based Arvida Co., a private real estate development corporation. He believes school districts should not be alarmed when their top executives are considered for other jobs.

“If you weren’t doing a good job, people wouldn’t want to talk with you,” he said. “I’d be more concerned if no one wanted your superintendent.”

Limiting the Pool

Some educators argue that the prospect of unwelcome publicity could have a chilling effect on potential job applicants. Several sitting superintendents who are currently considering other positions declined to be interviewed for this story.

“Some candidates will not make themselves available for positions when they know their name will be publicized right away,” said Floretta D. McKenzie, the president of the Washington-based McKenzie Group Inc., an educational consulting firm, and a former superintendent of the District of Columbia schools. She maintains that board members and candidates cannot make the best matches if the searches must be done entirely in public.

“It’s a very serious problem,” Ms. Jernigan agreed. “Where it really does the damage is in limiting the candidate pool.”

Few other jobs involve such high-profile attention, she added. “I’m really not aware of any other searches at the CEO level that involve the kind of disclosure that superintendent searches do.”

Similar pressure is not exerted on deputy or associate superintendents when they decide to look elsewhere. It is assumed that they are interested in moving up the career ladder.

But many superintendents say they too must keep their options open, given the pressure-packed, extremely political nature of the job. The average stay for a big-city superintendent is about three years.

“Any one of us could be a school board election or a controversial proposal away from being out in the job market,” Mr. Fleming of the 38,000-student Capistrano Unified district said.

The nature of the search process also has changed. Few sitting superintendents in large districts apply for jobs by reading newspaper advertisements. Instead, they are aggressively recruited by search firms that seek people with a proven track record--even before they have thrown their hats into the ring.

Florida Sunshine

While some school boards turn against their superintendents who eye new opportunities, other boards offer chiefs who are in demand enticements to stay. That was the case in 1979, when Larry L. Zenke began to think about leaving the Tulsa, Okla., schools.

“I had such resounding expressions of support from the school board, the president of the chamber of commerce, and the like that I wound up staying there 10 more years,” he said recently.

But in 1989, Mr. Zenke became the superintendent of the Duval County, Fla., schools, which serve 125,000 students. This winter, the board there bought out the remainder of his contract by a vote of 7-0. He asserts that the problems began when he applied to become superintendent in Palm Beach County, Fla. Though he later withdrew his application, “I think that was probably the start of it,” he said.

Florida has one of the most open search processes in the nation because of the state’s sunshine laws. Once someone applies for a position, it becomes a matter of public record, as does the candidate’s job application, his or her r‚sum‚, and any interviews. State law also prevents board members from meeting in private.

“I think it very definitely has a dampening effect, both in terms of the quantity and the quality of applicants,” Mr. Zenke said.

In San Diego, some board members were upset that Ms. Pendleton told them of the Dallas job only after it became public knowledge in Texas. “I heard about it first from a [San Diego] Union Tribune reporter,” said Ron Ottinger, the president of the school board. Ms. Pendleton said she informed board members as soon as she learned that she was a finalist.

Several members also were aggrieved because they had awarded Ms. Pendleton a $200,000 early-retirement package last May as an inducement to serve out her contract.

Mr. Ottinger said that he’s learned a lesson from the experience, and that he hopes to keep the coming search for Ms. Pendleton’s successor more confidential, after involving the community in identifying the criteria for a new school leader. “I’m hoping our community would prefer to get a top-quality person over having hundreds of people in the interview room,” he said.

‘The Last Cut’

Most school leaders say districts should keep the names of applicants confidential until there are two or three finalists.

“I think it’s really important to maintain confidentiality until you get down to the last cut,” said John Lynn, the president of the Tacoma, Wash., school board. “At that point, I think candidates have an obligation to notify their board that they are a part of this.”

Robert R. Spillane, the superintendent of the Fairfax County, Va., schools, who has twice applied to head the New York City schools, agreed. “It doesn’t serve anyone’s needs to know who the initial people who apply are,” he said. “But after that, it’s public. We’re in a public business.”

Mr. Murphy disagrees. School boards should have the courage, he said, to recruit candidates without caving in to what he called “consensual politics.”

But most observers agree that, in reality, once board members and others begin talking, word leaks out.

“One thing I’ve liked recently,” said Mr. Spillane, whose contract expires in 1998, “is I’ve talked to several non-public-sector people about my future, and no one will ever know about it.”

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