School & District Management

The Woman Behind the Scenes

By Karla Scoon Reid — October 08, 2004 10 min read
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Meet Nancy Noeske, a headhunter for big-city school districts searching for leaders.

Nancy R. Noeske monitors the scene in the Hilton Garden Inn’s sun-drenched lobby like a watchful parent. Over a breakfast of scrambled eggs and turkey sausage, she strains her neck, anticipating the arrival of the four anxious candidates to be this city’s next schools chief.

“There’s Sheila,” Noeske says, swiftly excusing herself from the restaurant table. She greets Sheila M. Austin, the chief of staff for the Toledo, Ohio, public schools, with a reassuring smile. One by one, the other candidates arrive and are quickly spirited away by car for a 14-hour marathon of interviews and public appearances.

The aspirants are front and center on this September day in Alabama’s state capital, but it’s Noeske who has carefully shepherded the complex process from its inception to these final chapters. Increasingly, school boards nationwide are turning to headhunters like Noeske to unearth superintendent candidates to solve every problem, from the achievement gap to labor-management woes.

Gone are the days when boards simply placed advertisements in trade publications and newspapers and waited for a flood of résumés in the mail. While people debate whether the pool of applicants has dried to a puddle, there’s no disagreement that districts have to work hard to hire top-notch superintendents.

So executive search firms have taken the offensive. Recruiters send e-mails and letters, make telephone calls, and conduct detective work. They’ll track potential superintendent candidates for years, watching their careers from afar, poised to pounce when the right opportunity emerges.

Nancy Noeske

Noeske, a former Milwaukee science teacher, has done 18 superintendent searches and built a reputation as an aggressive, effective recruiter of both women and candidates of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. Three years ago, she struck out on her own, founding proact Search to specialize in finding big-city superintendents.

“I’ve always been good at finding the right person for the right job at the right time,” says Noeske, who wears oversize gold-rimmed glasses and has a penchant for sparkling jewelry. “You make mistakes along the way, but you get to the point where nobody can really fool you.”

As the hunt for a superintendent for the 32,500-student Montgomery public schools was under way, Noeske was wrapping up a long and difficult search for the District of Columbia’s next superintendent. And she was hired by the St. Louis school board to find that city’s schools a new leader.

“Every superintendent search is different,” says Noeske, who hasn’t lost the soothing schoolteacher tone in her voice. “And they’re all plagued with problems. But you know, you work through them. And everybody stays happy.

“Well,” she adds, pausing, “most of the time.” She lets out a deep laugh.

One part sleuth. Two parts adviser. Three parts psychologist. Add a hint of peacemaker and a dash of politician. That’s Noeske’s recipe for a recruiter.

Search firms traditionally have been run by men—most of them former superintendents or university professors. But Noeske’s route to recruiting was almost accidental.

After spending almost two decades in education, she launched a second career handling communications and community-building for Wisconsin Power and Electric in 1979. She put off retirement in 1994 to serve as the Milwaukee school board’s liaison to then-Superintendent Howard L. Fuller. Later, she helped the district work with a private company as it sought Fuller’s replacement. Noeske eventually joined that firm to lead executive searches in education, before founding her own company in 2001.

She employs nine staff members and contracts with current or former educators, charging up to $45,000 a search, plus expenses. She says she often forgoes a salary from the firm.

“I don’t have to work,” says Noeske, who is in her 60s and wears five gold rings, none of them a wedding ring. (The timing was never right, she later explains.) “But I’ve always had this drive, this idea, that I could do better than I’ve done before.”

Superintendent searches are high-stakes affairs. If it’s a good match, a school system can see its fortunes improve and an educator’s reputation soar. A bad match can lead to a messy divorce.

“Every search is a competition—like running a race,” says William J. Attea, a founder of the Glenview, Ill.-based Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, one of the nation’s largest education search firms. “We want to do it right. We want to win. By winning, it’s putting someone in there who’s going to succeed.”

“We recognize it’s tough work,” Attea says. “Sometimes people say we’re crazy.”

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the nation’s largest city school systems, says Noeske is “very hands-on, and in that case, it gives her firm an edge.”

Superintendent searches are high-stakes affairs. If it’s a good match, a school system can see its fortunes improve and an educator’s reputation soar.

Observers say Noeske’s not out to find jobs for friends. Her supporters point to her down-to-earth, straightforward ability to communicate as a strength, describing her as knowledgeable but not all-knowing, firm but not abrasive.

“She’s been universally received here,” says Dave Borden, a Montgomery school board member. “And for a woman from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to be universally received in Montgomery, Alabama—that’s saying something.”

Noeske’s searches haven’t been without controversy. Determined to keep candidates’ identities concealed for as long as the law allowed, Noeske and the Cincinnati school board conducted a top-secret search in 2002. The local newspaper unsuccessfully sued both Noeske and the board for what it charged were violations of its First Amendment right to freedom of the press.

“We all respect that the public needs to know,” Noeske says, while adding that she always carries a paper Pick’n Save grocery bag to place over candidates’ heads. (She hasn’t had to use it yet.) “The question is, when does the public need to know?”

The months-long search for a superintendent in the District of Columbia this year was plagued by a threatened mayoral takeover of the schools, media leaks, and failed public flirtations with former New York City Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew and former Long Beach, Calif., schools chief Carl A. Cohn. Noeske was forced to try to salvage the search, recruiting a second slate of prospective hires.

By the time Clifford B. Janey, the former Rochester, N.Y. superintendent, was hired last month for the job in Washington, Noeske sounded weary but relieved during a telephone conversation from her Milwaukee office.

“The whole issue of trust—that’s what drives candidates away,” she says.

Noeske’s search in Montgomery had rocky beginnings.

Poised to promote a district administrator to replace its retiring superintendent this past May, the school board came under fire from city residents and district employees and even faced an unsuccessful lawsuit to block the decision.

Accused of trying to “appoint and anoint” a white assistant superintendent without considering a racially varied pool of applicants, the seven-person Montgomery school board reversed itself over the summer and announced plans for a national search. More than 75 percent of the district’s students are African-American. The district has never been led by a minority superintendent.

But doubts lingered about the caliber of candidate the Alabama district could attract. With a star already in town, credited with boosting reading scores, why look elsewhere? Could the board be trusted to conduct a fair and racially inclusive search? Tommie L. Miller, the school board chairman, says: “My only concern, frankly, was that we would get the also-rans and the has-beens looking for some place to land and cruise into retirement.”

Nancy R. Noeske

Instead, Montgomery had its pick of 39 highly qualified candidates, many with doctorates and connections to the city or state. Noeske delivered the diversity that the board sought: Nearly two-thirds of the applicants were members of racial or ethnic minority groups; 31 percent were women. Of the finalists, two were black women and two were white men.

“This is a case where we can’t go wrong,” says Ann Sippial, the local staff representative for the Montgomery County Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Noeske prides herself on tailoring each search to the client’s needs. Lengthy discussions with school board members, community and business leaders, parents, and teachers help her craft a detailed candidate profile to help screen applicants.

Borden, the school board member, stresses that the relationship between the board and the headhunter is crucial when part of the search is conducted in private, to shield candidates’ identity and protect them from ramifications in their current jobs.

“The search firm is more knowledgeable and has a better background on the candidates than you do,” Borden says.

After the first series of private interviews with nine superintendent hopefuls, Borden says he clashed with Noeske because he felt she was advocating for certain candidates to be brought back for the public phase of the search. Borden wonders: “Where does the board’s role pick up and the search firm’s end?”

Noeske bristles at the suggestion that she favors one candidate over another. “I can’t make a decision for the board,” she says later, back in her Milwaukee office. “But I don’t want them to make a mistake and eliminate someone for the wrong reason.”

The morning of the first round of interviews, members of the Montgomery school board are visibly impressed by their “Final Four.”

The exhausting itinerary for each hopeful resembles the jam-packed class schedule of an overachieving high school senior: Candidate No. 1 meets with the superintendent’s staff. Candidate No. 2 meets with the school board. Candidate No. 3 meets with principals. Candidate No. 4 meets with the mayor of Montgomery.

Every hour, the candidates switch and shuffle off to the next phase of the public round-robin tournament. Following a brief lunch with board members, there’s a school visit, interviews with the local media, a pta reception, and a community forum. The next day, meetings with business leaders, county commissioners, and education foundation representatives are on tap.

Gone are the days when boards simply placed advertisements in trade publications and newspapers and waited for a flood of résumés in the mail.

At first, the board interviews are a tightly scripted affair, with board members relying mainly on suggested questions written by Noeske. But some members have their own priorities: Student discipline. Magnet schools. And Noeske grows frustrated when members don’t ask the same questions of all the candidates, which she sees as an issue of fairness.

Once each interview ends, Noeske bends over the seated candidate and delivers her assessment of the performance in a whisper. All did well, but one candidate spoke in a monotone voice. Another talked too much about the candidate’s current district and how things were done there.

Arnold Woodrow Carter, the deputy superintendent of the Oakland, Calif., public schools, says that after his first interview with board members in August, Noeske encouraged him to be more concise and stay on point. “Those little tweaks make all the difference,” Carter says.

Clear favorites emerge when the candidates go before board members the second day. Some sit through a grilling, while others are tossed softball questions. Noeske signals one board member to move along when her comments veer toward an endorsement.

“I want to thank you for opening my mind and making me think outside the box,” Vickie Jernigan, the board’s vice chairwoman, tells candidate Paul M. Hankins, a retired U.S. Air Force officer who serves as a consultant to the city government and the chamber of commerce.

Noeske sighs.

Later, over plates of fried green tomatoes and salads at a local eatery, three school board members dream the impossible with Noeske. The day-and-a-half interview process is finally over, but the candidates’ words still echo in their heads. Do you think we could get two of them, they ask Noeske—a superintendent and an assistant superintendent? Word is that two of the candidates are having lunch together.

Instead, the school board makes history Sept. 23 and unanimously appoints Carlinda Purcell as Montgomery’s next schools chief, pending contract negotiations. Purcell, the associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the Cumberland County schools in Fayetteville, N.C., will be the first woman and first African-American to lead the district.

Satisfied that another search is over and elated about the consensus vote, Noeske has moved on to tackle the St. Louis job. Last week, she packed her battered suitcases for yet another round of forums and meetings.

“I’m going to end my life running down an airport concourse, trying to catch a flight,” she says with a laugh.

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at


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