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Choice of CMS matchmaker will shape superintendent search

Thomas Jacobson of McPherson Jacobson (left) talks to board members Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Paul Bailey.
Thomas Jacobson of McPherson Jacobson (left) talks to board members Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Paul Bailey. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

How much should the public know about who applies to lead Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools?

Are there personality tests that can help the district break its cycle of churning through superintendents?

And what happens if, in the worst case, this search yields a hire that fails?

Those were some of the questions that emerged Tuesday, as school board members sat down with four firms that hope to play matchmaker between one of the nation’s largest school districts and the person who will be its next superintendent.

There’s a lot at stake. The superintendent is the face of public education in Mecklenburg County, responsible for almost 150,000 students, a work force of more than 18,000 and a $1.4 billion budget. Virtually everyone agrees that CMS is vital to the region’s civic and economic health, but people are deeply divided over the district’s future.

The choice of a search firm, expected to be announced April 26, will likely be a blip in the public consciousness. But it will shape the way the next leader is chosen, with each contender saying it has special insights into finding a candidate who can deliver that elusive long-term relationship with CMS.

“We’re local. We have a doubly vested interest in Charlotte getting this right,” said Shana Plott of Coleman Lew and Associates.

“If it’s someone from North Carolina, we know everybody,” said Allison Shafer of the N.C. School Boards Association.

One of the most talked-about points was how and when the public should get involved, including whether the traditional meet and greet with a handful of finalists should continue.

“We have hung our hat on transparency. We believe public business should be done in public,” said Thomas Jacobson of McPherson Jacobson, who recommended that the public meet finalists.

“This is a broad, sweeping statement, but the more open the process, the more difficult it is for us to recruit,” said Ted Blaesing of Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, who argued against forcing finalists to go public.

The question, which is being debated in districts across the country, is whether people who hold leadership positions are willing to risk exposure and awkwardness if they reveal they’ve applied for another job but aren’t chosen.

While different firms had different advice, all said it’s ultimately up to the board to set the rules. And however the end of the search plays out, all said they’ll engage families, employees and community leaders up front in developing a profile for the next superintendent.

Learning from mistakes

Board members clearly feel bruised by the last search, which led to the hiring of Heath Morrison from Reno, Nev., in 2012. His intense energy and quick ability to grasp local issues fueled enthusiasm when he was one of three finalists who met the public.

But less than three years after he was tapped, the board’s lawyer recommended firing him, saying Morrison had bullied staff and misled the board about the cost of a new school. Members have wondered if a better search would have revealed warning signs.

The board used PROACT, an Illinois-based search firm. Members later learned that CEO Gary Solomon also ran an academy to train administrators for superintendent jobs, raising questions about whether people who paid for the training got an inside track. Morrison did consulting for Solomon’s SUPES Academy after CMS hired him. Solomon is currently facing bribery and corruption charges connected with a SUPES Academy contract with Chicago Public Schools.

This time around, the board asked about potential conflicts of interest: “Has your firm ever had any type of financial relationship with any candidate that was included in any search with which your firm was involved? If so, when and how was the relationship disclosed to your client?”

During the face-to-face sessions Tuesday, representatives of the four firms chosen for interviews assured members they are representing only the board that hires them, not candidates seeking a job. They talked about screenings that range from Google searches and criminal background checks to in-depth reference checking.

The board’s written query asked if firms use any kind of formal leadership or personality assessments to ensure the right match for a job. All said they could if the board insisted, but none seemed enthusiastic. Instead, they talked about getting to know candidates – including people who might need to be talked into applying.

Privacy vs. exposure

North Carolina law makes applications confidential unless candidates agree to public disclosure.

One of the first questions is how involved board members will be in narrowing the field. Some firms bring a “short list,” while others want all board members involved in the screening.

Once the board chooses a group for first interviews – usually six to 10 – the challenge becomes avoiding breach of confidence, consultants said. The board must schedule a public meeting, but it can go immediately into closed session to talk to candidates. In 2012 the board went to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, using a conference room behind the security lines to conduct interviews. That didn’t stop me and WBTV’s Dedrick Russell from finding a way to follow them, though we didn’t glean much from it.

Board member Rhonda Lennon asked whether there are ways to avoid a repeat of that scene, such as using Skype interviews. Blaesing said that’s a challenge across the country: “There are a lot of enquiring minds.” He said virtual interviews can be difficult, especially if the full board is involved.

Once the list is narrowed further, the board will have to decide whether to visit the finalists’ districts and whether to let the public meet and weigh in on contenders.

Start to finish

The timeline for a search remains unclear.Superintendent Ann Clark’s contract runs through June 2017, but some board members say they want to get a successor in office before that.

The board asked firms to outline “an aggressive but realistic timeline” beginning in mid-April. However, Lennon noted that the board has already fallen behind on that plan.

All firms said they’ll work with the board to create a schedule, but much will depend on how quickly the board finds the right person – and gets that person to agree to come here. Some boards have seen finalists withdraw, even after a single preferred candidate is announced.

And at least some of the firms offer support after a contract is signed. Jacobson said his company helps the board and the new superintendent work together on early performance goals, and won’t charge for a new search if the superintendent leaves within two years for any reason.

The board went into closed session Tuesday evening to decide which firm they want. CMS lawyer George Battle III will negotiate a contract, with the board voting at its next meeting. That’s when the cost of the search will be revealed as well. Each firm’s written pitch to CMS included fees, but the district has not yet released those documents. In fact, board members specifically asked not to see the price tag before the interviews, following the advice of former board member Trent Merchant, who used to work for Coleman Lew.

In a March meeting, Merchant told the board cost isn’t the most important factor, and warned that they’ll be criticized no matter how much they pay.

The contenders

Coleman Lew and Associates

Basics: Charlotte-based executive search firm that recruits for private and public positions. (http://colemanlew.com/).

Pitch: As a local company it’s vested in CMS success and brings the standards of corporate head-hunting to the superintendent search. “We’re literally four blocks away on 10th Street.”

Experience: Thirty-seven years in business. Recent public searches include Mecklenburg county manager and library director, Rock Hill superintendent.

N.C. School Boards Association

Basics: Raleigh-based membership organization that has a superintendent search service (www.ncsba.org).

Pitch: Brings in-depth knowledge of North Carolina law and public education but can reach a national market of candidates. “We’re in your backyard. We’re here until you’re happy.”

Experience: Has done about 140 searches in 77 North Carolina districts, including ongoing searches in Guilford and Union counties.

Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates

Basics: Based in suburban Chicago; has an East Coast office and specializes in superintendent searches (www.ecragroup.com/hya-executive-search).

Pitch: Brings a national network with expertise in education and recruiting for large urban school districts.

Experience: Has done more than 1,000 searches, including Boston, Los Angeles and Broward County, Fla.

McPherson Jacobson

Basics: Omaha-based firm that specializes in superintendent searches (www.macnjake.com).

Pitch: Focused on leadership as a key to improving student success and committed to doing public business in public.

Experience: Has placed more than 500 superintendents and other educational leaders, including Wake County, Las Vegas and Louisville.

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