School & District Management

In Search for Schools Chiefs, Boards Struggle

By John Gehring — October 29, 2003 5 min read
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When it comes to involving the community in a search for a superintendent, it appears that school boards are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

The Minneapolis board has launched a new search for a schools chief, after its decision last month to promote the district’s chief operating officer without seeking public input sparked a lawsuit.

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Read the accompanying story, “Seattle Election Could Splinter District Leaders.”

In Seattle, the school board was forced to name the interim superintendent to the job after a community advisory group didn’t want any of the final candidates. The group’s negative reactions, in fact, in many ways contributed to the final candidates’ decisions to withdraw their names. (“Seattle Board Picks Insider as Superintendent,” Oct. 15, 2003.)

The fine line that school boards must walk between being attentive to the community’s desire to play a role, while at the same time making a firm decision, can be a difficult one, those involved in both ends of searches say.

In Portland, Ore., the school board has embarked on its second superintendent search in two years with a vow to get that balance right this time.

A lengthy search process last year dragged on during trying financial times for the 53,000-student Portland schools. Finalists met with community groups close to 20 times, but all ultimately removed their names from contention. (“Top Contenders Withdraw From Portland Search,” May 1, 2002.)

The board is now searching again, with the help of a local consulting team of professional managers, community organizers, and communication experts.

“This will be much more of a proactive, aggressive recruitment,” said Julia Brim-Edwards, the co-chairwoman of the Portland school board, who emphasized that members are hoping for a more streamlined approach.

“The process will be designed to produce a result,” she said. “The process won’t be designed just to have a process people feel good about, but one that signs a superintendent who can help us achieve our goals.”

More or Less Input?

The Minneapolis board’s new search will involve more community input, promised Judy Farmer, a board member in the 47,000-student district.

“We learned from last time we should have opened it up to public input in terms of what we were looking for,” she said. “We would have been in better shape.”

With four public forums scheduled over the next month, a phone line for people to call with comments, and surveys translated into several languages placed in schools and on the district’s Web site asking what criteria should be used to select the next superintendent, residents will have opportunities to voice their thoughts, Ms. Farmer said.

“One reason boards have a difficult time is the same reason schools have a difficult time,” she said. “Everybody went to school, so how difficult can it be? Everyone is an expert.”

After a 90- minute meeting, the Minneapolis board decided Sept. 23 that it would forgo a national search in favor of promoting David Jennings, the district’s interim superintendent and former chief operating officer.

The decision drew a lawsuit, filed by a group of critics led by a coalition of African-American ministers, objecting to what they said was a closed process.

The same critics also doubted that Mr. Jennings, a former speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives who lacked a traditional background in education, was qualified for the job. In the face of the controversy, Mr. Jennings withdrew his name from contention and will remain interim superintendent until a new schools chief is found.

The Rev. Randolph Staten, the co-chairman of the Coalition of Black Churches/African American Leadership Summit, one of the Minneapolis groups upset about being excluded from the decision over whom to hire, said school boards must be accountable to the community.

“They are elected by the people to maximize the input from the people,” he said. “We see some of these elitist attitudes that say, ‘I’m elected and I need to make the decision.’ We need to have a partnership. These are our children. We want an open process.”

Middle Ground?

Steven Adamowski, the former superintendent of the 42,000-student Cincinnati public schools who was a candidate for the Seattle superintendency, cautioned that boards must be strategic in deciding how to best involve their constituents.

“There is an inherent tension between the systematic and sensible things you need to do to attract and maintain candidates and the desire to involve the community,” said Mr. Adamowski. “Each represents a different value system. The middle ground is to have a highly structured process for community involvement.”

Although expressing respect for the board of the 47,000-student Seattle district, Mr. Adamowski said he was nevertheless frustrated by the search there, which he characterized as “a freewheeling process.”

“It has to be highly structured and there needs to be advance work to allow community groups to focus on a common set of criteria and values,” he said. “It can’t be a free-for-all where every group tries to advance its own agenda. It projects to candidates there is no agreement or consensus.”

Robin Pasquarella, a member of the community advisory committee that worked with the school board on the search and the president of the Alliance for Education, a Seattle nonprofit group, agreed more structure was needed.

“Seattle is a city known for process overkill,” she said. “We just love our process. The unfortunate thing was the school board made a strategic mistake in allowing their decision to be delayed so long. It became a trial in the press for the candidates and that was a mistake.”

James Auter, a professor of educational leadership at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., who serves as a consultant for superintendent searches, said boards themselves are often divided over what they want in a leader.

“Any given candidate can present themselves in rather glowing, exceptional terms,” Mr. Auter said. “The investigation process separates the good searches from the bad ones.”

“There has to be a clear vision from the school board and matching that up with the candidates’ skills,” he said.


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