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Special Report: School Superintendent Hunts Differ Dramatically in Scope, Cost, Tactics

Some area boards pay adviser to cast wide net, others recruit within their district.

There's no one way to recruit a school superintendent.

Berkley's next school superintendent simply will switch offices at the administration building. In , a new superintendent also won't move far this spring – just from a school in that system.

At least three other southeast Michigan districts also filled their top jobs internally last year: in northern Oakland and Chippewa Valley in Macomb County had single-candidate appointments, while promoted an administrator after a costly national search and bitterly divided board vote. 

Tuesday, Birmingham Public Schools embarks on its own search process after .

The Birmingham Board of Education will meet Tuesday afternoon at 5:30 p.m. to interview three specialty search firms to conduct their search process, joining area districts like Clawson and West Bloomfield, which also paid firms to prospect for candidates nation-wide.

But what's best: promoting internally or searching outside the school district? Do school board-led searches work best or are search firms necessary? To see pluses and minuses of board-managed searches versus a consultant-aided approach, check out the accompanying PDF.

Guidance for future

A Patch review of tactics to fill a dozen 2011-12 vacancies, summarized in a chart below this article, shows differences that are likely to arise repeatedly in coming years.   

For economic reasons and others, including sweetened state retirement incentives offered in 2010, there's an increased churn among public school district leaders statewide. "In the last three years, we've replaced about 60 percent of Michigan superintendents," says Dick Dunham, a Lansing-based recruiting specialist at the Michigan Association of School Boards.  

Filling those seats is a critical mission, closely watched by local parents, educators and media.

"There's no greater singular task than choosing a superintendent," said  Board of Education member Beth Talbert during that district's superintendent search last year. In West Bloomfield, hiring a superintendent is No. 1 on a three-item list of board responsibilities.

Boards in both West Bloomfield and Birmingham are among those enlisting professional support for the task. In Rochester, an Illinois consulting firm was paid $33,000 in fees and expenses for a five-month national search that ended last March.

All six Rochester finalists were from Michigan, including an assistant superintendent in the district. The board chose Frederick Clarke, a superintendent from Albion Public Schools near Battle Creek – which has 860 students in three schools. Rochester has more than 14,800 students in 22 buildings.

Looking far, hiring near

Michigan job-seekers filled four other nationally advertised openings locally between February 2011 and this February, including a Grosse Pointe assistant superintendent picked for the top job where he has worked since 2007. A split board voted 4-3 board last summer to choose Tom Harwood over two Metro Detroit finalists and two from Pennsylvania. An Illinois search firm received about $30,000 from the district, according to Ranae Beyerlein, a biology and chemistry instructor at Grosse Pointe South High School and head of the teachers' collective bargaining unit.

Heidi Linn, a resident, characterized the outcome on Patch as "another embarrassment for the Grosse Pointe school system." Brian Hunt, a former Grosse Pointe Shores City Council member, also commented on the news site. "Choosing an 'outside the office' candidate would have surely improved our school system and moved us in the right direction," he posted a day after the July 2011 vote.

Internal dvisions resurfaced a month later when trustees Fred Minturn and Judy Gafa, who had opposed hiring Harwood, dissented in a 5-2 voted approving his contract.

L'Anse Creuse Public Schools, a 37-square-mile Macomb County district, hired an in-state candidate after a coast-to-coast search drew more than 60 applications. The board flew in a consultant from Seattle for three days last October, considered 12 semifinalists and narrowed the field last month to an Illinois superintendent, a Baltimore deputy superintendent and an Oakland County superintendent.

'Tough economic time'

The local finalist, Jacqueline Johnston of Huron Valley Schools in Highland, was picked unanimously Feb. 13. Among leadership assets described in a statement to the board, she cited experience "proactively implementing positive financial solutions during this tough economic time in Michigan."

Net result: Cascade Consulting Group, based 2,400 miles away, guided a search that hired someone from a district 46 miles away.    

Besides Grosse Pointe and Chippewa Valley, the other two national searches ending with in-state placements were in Oakland last year.

Novi, working with School Exec Connect of Illinois (the same firm Rochester used), got 45 applications, narrowed them to four Michigan finalists and chose  a superintendent from Grand Ledge, near Lansing.  Royal Oak took just nine weeks to screen 32 applications, talk with five semifinalists and hire a superintendent from Manchester, a three-school rural district southwest of Ann Arbor. Its consultant was from the Michigan Association of School Boards.

Hands-on trial for a year  

An innovative, year-long approach wrapping up in Trenton is one that Dunham hasn't seen elsewhere. After the district's superintendent retired in June 2011, interim appointee Larry Leapley and the board set up on-the-job tryouts for two district principals and an assistant principal.

Leapley, a 34-year veteran of the southern Wayne County district who had retired in 2004, mentors and evaluates the three candidates – whom he calls superintendent "interns." They do job-shadowing, attend leadership workshops, sit in on board meetings and go to monthly meetings of the Wayne Regional Education Service Agency.

While still running their schools, the two men and a woman each served as acting superintendent for a week. They also participated in teacher contract talks, helped screen business manager prospects, advised on hiring an elementary principal and studied whether to outsource the information technology functions and bus transportation.    

"This is the first that we’ve heard of anyone doing it like this. We thought it was important to promote from within," said Trenton Board of Education president Mike Hawkins. "There’s one intangible that we all agree is one of the most important and that is ownership in the district."

Dunham, the Lansing association specialist, notes that the result of such a process "could be awkward" when two passed-over administrators must report to the winner. "The new superintendent will have to reach out to them sensitively," he adds. 

Best practices

At Oakland University, associate professor C. Robert Maxfield studies best practices in selecting education leaders. Independent searches run solely by elected trustees "should only be done if it appears that the selection will be made from available internal candidates," says the education sholar. "Even in such cases, the downside is the loss of objectivity and the possible perception that the decision was preordained."

That perception arose in the Berkley district this month after board members decided to consider just one candidate. Dennis McDavid, the system's human resources director, was the only person formally interviewed to replace Superintendent Mike Simeck, who announced Feb. 14 that he'll lead a district near Chicago next school year.

Jeff Meade, a Huntington Woods financial services executive, is "disappointed that the board didn't leverage the reputation of the district to get a pool of highly qualified candidates." He posted that comment on Berkley Patch's Facebook page shortly before the board hired McDavid on March 12.

Board president Paul Ellison explained the zippy approach in a March 2 message to parents, teachers and staff. Citing the active changeover of superintendents in the area, he noted: "Many of the external candidates reputed to be the 'most qualified' are no longer available for the upcoming 2012-2013 school year. Moreover, the search process in many of these districts proved to be highly divisive to their communities and very fractious to their districts. At least two districts eventually selected one of their own internal administrators after enduring such divisive searches and expending significant sums on professional search firms."

Berkley, by contrast, "has an established precedent of selecting internal candidates," added the board leader. Three of the last five superintendents came from the administrative ranks.

'Pat on the head'

While praising McDavid, Norup International School parent Stephanie Pandolfi of Berkley comments on Patch that she's "not impressed with the board's decision to interview one internal candidate. . . . The public gets a patronizing pat on the head while the board goes and does what they think is best." She believes the board decided to hire him "before the public was made aware that Mike Simeck was leaving."

The three-week sprint from vacancy announcement to the single public board interview March 6 concerns others. "We should have had more time to do this the right way. More input as a community," Marla Jansen of Berkley posted at Patch. She's PTA vice president at Norup, a district school in Oak Park.  

Ellison, the board president, told Patch recently that he spoke informally during February "with two [staff administrators] we thought would be interested and made sure they would be comfortable" with McDavid as the sole prospect. 

Kim Lifton of Huntington Woods, a parent who has served on school board advisory committees, stood up for the trustees. McDavid "was on the fast track because he was very good," she says on Patch's Facebook page. "We elect our school board to do a job; sometimes we just have to trust (them)."

From his perpsective as search services director at the school boards association in Lansing, Dunham comments: "Even if there's a strong internal candidate, boards still can do a [national] search to make sure the internal candidate is best and measures up to all candidates."

Community outreach is 'critical'

Mixed feelings about Berkley's approach reinforce the value of some public role in picking a superintendent. "Input from the community, parents, faculty and students is a critical data source," says Shannon Flumerfelt, as associate professor of education at Oakland University. "These constituents are key district stakeholders and their perspectives can be solicited to understand the needs of the district."

West Bloomfield's board and search adviser, a past Southfield superintendent, held two full days of "focus group" discussions about the opening this month. Search criteria were developed last week from suggestions by parents, teachers, administrators and others. 

That inclusive approach, along with other lessons from the flurry of 2011-12 searches, can be applied by boards looking for the smoothest way to fill a district's top office – as Metro Detroit trustees also are doing now in Lincoln Park, Milford and Taylor. Board members in Plymouth-Canton Community Schools are preparing for a search this year or in 2013 to fill a seat occupied temporarily by Jeremy Hughes of Dearborn since May 2011.  

This roundup includes reporting by Patch site editors Kristin Bull, Rebecca Jaskot, Sara Eaton Martin, John McKay, Timothy Rath, Nate Stemen, Nicquel Terry, Laura Houser and Jenny Whalen. Research also is based on articles by Patch contributors Bryan Gottlieb, Victoria Mitchell and Brittney Moody. 

School Superintendent Searches, 2011-12

District

Supt.
Chosen

Search
Length

Search
Scope

Appointee
Came From

Candi-
dates

Finalists

Consultant
Hired

Berkley

March 2012

1 month

Internal

Same district

1

1

None

Birming-
ham
Pending
Not decided



Chippewa Valley

June 2011

5 months

Internal

Same district

1

1

None

Clawson

June 2012
(estimate)

4 months
(estimate)

National

 

Still open

2 - 3

Michigan
Leadership Institute

Grosse Pointe

July 2011

4.5 months

National

Same district

Undis-closed

5,
then 3

HYA (Ill.)

Huron Valley Pending
Not
decided


Not
decided

Lake Orion

March 2011

4 months

Internal

Same district

1

1

None

L'Anse Creuse

Feb. 2012

5 months

National

Highland, MI

60+

12,
then 3

Cascade Consulting Group (Washington State)

Novi

Feb. 2011

4+ mos.

National

Grand Ledge, MI

45

4

School Exec Connect
(Illinois)

Rochester

March 2011

5 months

National

Albion, MI

Undis-closed

6,
then 3

School Exec Connect
(Illinois)

Royal Oak

April 2011

9 weeks

National

Manchester, MI

32

5,
then 2

Mich. Association
of School Boards

Trenton

Pending

Ongoing

Internal

 

16

3

None

West Bloomfield

Mid-May 2012
(estimate)

4 months
(estimate)

National

 

 

 

Ray and Associates
(Iowa)

Notes:  Chart shows Patch communities. "Search Length" is from first public board discussion until selection.
Source: Patch news coverage and research

For more information

Birmingham

Berkley

Chippewa Valley

L'Anse Creuse

Grosse Pointe

Novi

West Bloomfield

Rochester

Trenton

Royal Oak

Clawson

Pam Houghton March 27, 2012 at 02:05 PM
I actually like the Trenton approach of letting three current employees - two district principals and one assistant principal - "intern" for the position. It seems to me that someone who is internal to the district will have a commitment to the district's overall success that may lag behind in an outsider, not that outsiders haven't been, or couldn't be, effective. However, I think of all the CEOs that have come and gone with major companies, who were recruited from the "outside". Seems as though many struggle with making change because it takes a long time to understand the culture. Not to compare apples to oranges, but it seems CEOs sometimes come in and make change for the sake of making change, then leave. Maybe a closer association with the culture of an organization, or school district, might result in changes that are more appropriate for that culture. My two cents.
Tom Nugent March 27, 2012 at 05:41 PM
Ceo's carefully and intentionally groom candidates for succession, managing talent within the organization through performance management, mentoring, coaching, and developmental job experiences. School districts can do the same, and would experience huge benefits by doing so, but few have the awareness, expertise and capacity to do so. Having an internal, qualified superintendent candidate ready when the position comes open in 2022 requires resources to develop teachers and principals in position in 2012, not only in technical skills like teaching and learning, which districts do well, but also in leading change, changing culture and developing teams. Few school leaders and even fewer school boards are ready to make those kind of long term investments in leadership. Tom Nugent LeadersInEdu
Greg Thrasher March 30, 2012 at 06:47 PM
YAWN..One of the most critical factors in a 'search' is the caliber/depth/ of those conducting the 'search'. In the majority of these types of placements to often the vendors who provide these services are lacking in diverse professionals to assist in securing the 'right' candidate. This is a critical issue in part because of the demographics of the school districts which are 'searching' for superintindents. Politics of course also influence the nature and outcomes of the vendor's search efforts as these candidates must be approved by the various school boards. I look forward to my firm's advocacy role in this process in all of the school district's which have openings for superintendents!

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