School & District Management

Should Superintendent Searches Be Open or Closed?

By Dakarai I. Aarons — October 04, 2010 1 min read
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Most sitting superintendents would tell you they believe searches should be closed. Some members of the public, including we pesky reporters, generally disagree.

Who’s right? You decide, and here’s some information that could help.

The American Association of School Administrators’ magazine, The School Administrator, has a trio of pieces this month that are good reading, not just for school leaders considering a step up to the top rung, but for school board members and members of the media.

Terre Davis, a former superintendent herself, runs the Colorado-based TD & Associates. She argues the process should be open to the community.

Some school board members, owing to their election by the community, believe they must make all decisions, start to finish, effectively leaving the community in the dark about the affairs of the school district. This type of governance puts the district in a "no need to know" mode, leading to the board's decision to conduct its search for a new superintendent in secret or mostly behind closed doors. These actions promote an arrogant "we know best" attitude in the wider community by the board.

William Attea, who is board chair of Illinois-based Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, argues the other side.

When a highly qualified candidate learns the search will be conducted confidentially, a positive response is almost certain, in my experience running superintendent searches since 1988. Just as likely, the prospective candidate responds negatively to being told the search process will not be confidential.
Confidentiality is the item of highest priority to candidates who are highly successful and well regarded in their current positions. These are the candidates for the superintendency that we seek out when our firm works for client boards of education.

Art Stellar, who has been a superintendent for the past 24 years, takes a different tack in the column he wrote for The School Administrator. Stellar, who is the superintendent now in Burke County Public Schools in Morganton, N.C., says that in that time many things have changed about the way searches are done, and not necessarily for the better.

Superintendent searches, he said, used to focus more on a person’s positive qualities and what he or she might bring to a school district. These days, he writes, there’s more of an emphasis on ferreting out the negative.

The rise of the Internet and search engines has made everyone a private investigator, capable of pulling together bits and pieces of controversial actions involving public officials. Search consultants and newspaper reporters used to be the only parties with the resources to dig up anything questionable. Now, once the list of potential superintendent candidates is given to school board members and the public, the Googling exercise commences.
Experienced superintendents are at a disadvantage because there is bound to be one or more controversial decisions (school consolidations, changes in school boundaries, budget cuts, union negotiations, etc.) in a school district where they served. As a candidate for a position, you should be ready to explain anything and everything that has ever happened in public over the course of your career.

As a media member, I hold a viewpoint you will hear consistently from journalists and advocates for the public’s right to know.

We believe the searches should be open and transparent because we believe that’s how government should work—the public’s work should be done in public. It also provides the public a method of holding the school board they’ve elected accountable.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.