A study in searching

Detroit's struggle to find a new school superintendent isn't surprising to educational observers elsewhere.         "Not just Detroit, for all urban districts it's hard. They're tough positions. It's not a job for everyone," says Carl Hartman, associate director of field services for the Michigan Association of School Boards.

From a pool of 20 candidates, the Detroit Board of Education chose four to interview last weekend. The plan is to name a new leader by March. But when the search committee released the names and credentials of finalists in advance, some board members and members of the community complained about their less-than-impressive credentials.

"If you did your job so well," board member Jonathan Kinloch asked search committee member Tyrone Winfrey, "why did we come up with this weak list of individuals? You did not actively go out and try and gather enough candidates."

Among them is David Snead, a man who previously had the job here and was asked by the board to resign two years before his contract expired amid allegations of financial mismanagement. Another of the chosen finalists was fired from a job earlier this year in an Illinois district that has now agreed to a state takeover, according to published reports. The only Michigan candidate withdrew.

It's been said by many, but we'll say it again: Our children deserve better.

Yet the district leaders only continue to offer them worse.

Consider the display during the board's public discussions about the search last week: Winfrey told Kinloch he "should be disbanded" after Kinloch proposed disbanding the search committee and starting over. Board Vice President Joyce Hayes-Giles said she was "disappointed" in the board's behavior. Then, the board changed its mind about whether current Superintendent William Coleman should be allowed to interview along with the other candidates for the job. (In a split decision, the board has included him.)

"Other candidates will see how we handle this type of thing. Why would they want to come to Detroit?" Hayes-Giles said. "We should see the process through, and if it does not yield the type of leader that we know we need for the district and our children, I will go on record saying I will not vote for a candidate just because we had this process."

These exchanges took place after the board started its monthly meeting — in front of a jam-packed audience at the Southwestern High School auditorium — with an hour-long executive session. That meant the folks in attendance had to twiddle their thumbs while the board met behind closed doors. News Hits wasn't the only one who found this discourteous, at best. Parents, teachers, staff, students and others who came to the meeting to witness contract approvals, hear updates on the superintendent search and comment directly to the board had to wait while the board disappeared.

Add to this behavior Detroit's economic condition, poverty rates and children lagging in educational achievement, and it's no wonder very few want the superintendent job.

"I think urban districts are more difficult because you have so many issues that you're dealing with. The complexity of an urban district is a little tougher," says Bill Naftzger, the chief human resources officer at Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma where a new superintendent was hired last summer.

Tulsa Board of Education President Matt Livingood says some of the reasons their search was successful was because of constant communication between the board and the community, a well-prepared list of desired characteristics for the new leader and cooperation from a local corporation that underwrote the search effort, which included the use of an outside firm.

News Hits paraphrases, but Livingood says the Detroit search is becoming a lesson in what not to do when looking for a new superintendent.

"If I were president of that board, I would say, 'What the hell are you doing there?' Part of what we live with is credibility," he says.

But Thomas Jacobson, the owner of an Omaha, Neb., search consulting firm, says strife between district board members, superintendents, union leaders and people in the community aren't unique to Detroit.

"I guess the inability to get along is pretty much what we see across the nation right now. Those issues really need to be worked out as you move along," he says. "Once the players realize that what they're doing now is not good for kids, they'll generally come together and say, 'Let's talk this through.'"

Jacobson's company, MacPherson & Jacobson, contracts with districts throughout the country to organize their superintendent searches, recruit candidates and oversee — though not conduct — interviews. Having an outside firm allows applicants freedom from public disclosure unless they are chosen as finalists because state freedom of information laws don't apply to the private companies. Jacobson says having a private company gather the applications — something Detroit did not do — helps attract more applicants.

"We're going to be able to keep them anonymous up until the point where the board interviews them," he says.

Jacobson also wondered why the Detroit board held interviews with all four candidates on the same days. "We would never bring all candidates in on one day," he says. "It's a matter of upstaging your competition [for the applicants.] You lose the substance of what the person's about when you do that. It becomes more of a performance than a process to unveil the strengths and weaknesses of the individual candidates."

Board member Marie Thornton attended last weekend's interviews and recommended not hiring any of the candidates. But she won't present a motion to the full board to restart the search, perhaps with a national firm.

"I think that this search committee got themselves into this mess. It needs to be one of those search committee members who push this process to another level," she says.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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