Thursday, January 07, 2010

School Board Can't Do Job?

January 7, 2009, 10:45 a.m.

There They Go Again
(brought to you by*)

What is it about elected and appointed board members and administrators? Why this compulsive, knee-jerk sprint to search firms and consultants whenever they come face to face with the real job they're there to do? Honestly, what is it? Fundamental, gut-wrenching insecurity and low self-esteem? A political cowardice that seeks to ward off any possible criticism from any quarter with the ability to say, "But that wasn't our decision; we relied on the consultant," or "We didn't hire that guy; that's who the search firm said we should hire." Or is it a candid, honest assessment that they are really incapable of doing their job?

In case you haven't figured out yet what I'm writing about, yes, that's right, the Iowa City Community School District Board is searching for a search firm to do the Board's job of searching for a new superintendent, now that Lane Plugge is leaving. B.A. Morelli, "School board weighing search firm; Timeline is 'tight,' board president says," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 5, 2010; and see, "The Plugge Era: 1999-2010," December 24, 2009.

The last time I wrote about related issues was when the Board wanted a consultant to do its job of redrawing the District's elementary and high school boundaries. "School Boundaries Consultant Folly; Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board Not Consultants or Superintendent; Plus: What Consultant Could Do," August 28, 2009.

Similar concerns arise with the use of search firms.

1. Next to fashioning its own governance model for the board, superintendent, and district, a school board (or any other institution's board) has no more important task than hiring its CEO (which school districts call the "superintendent"). Board members need to be deeply involved in the details of the search and recruitment process, not just the ultimate decision.

2. It's the creation of the "short list" of candidate finalists, not the ultimate choice, that is the most important part of that process. The same thing goes for the nomination process in politics -- which is why it's important, and why it multiplies your influence in a democratic society, to participate in the political party of your choice and not just "vote" in the general election. As Boss Bill Tweed of 19th Century New York is quoted as having said, "I don't care who does the electing, just so long as I get to do the nominating." Our Board members ought to be doing the nominating as well as the electing.

3. A search is not rocket science. It's something our Board members ought to be able to do and, quite frankly, I think are able to do. The steps are fairly standard and straight forward. You put notices in the relevant communications channels (e.g., education trade publications, Web pages, list servs), consult with your range of contacts, and once you have possibles you run them through Google, and talk to the references they suggest (and the ones they don't who are obvious people to call).

We've recently gone through the process of recruiting a new dean and faculty members for the UI College of Law. I have at least one colleague who is seemingly capable of providing, off the top of his head, a rather impressive amount of information and evaluation with regard to almost any law school dean or faculty member in the nation about whom you might inquire. Moreover, he knows about their scholarship, how long they've been where they are, what they did before, whether they are capable of being moved and why they might, or might not, be interested in coming to Iowa. And that's before he makes the effort to learn more.

Admittedly, he's exceptional. But I would guess if you involved every member of the faculty, the group as a whole would be capable of doing as well or possibly even better. Indeed, we did; without the assistance of any search firms we have just hired a law school dean I have elsewhere described as "spectacular." "Welcome Dean Gail Agrawal!" January 4, 2009. The new UI Vice President for Strategic Communications, Tysen Kendig, was also found and hired without the need for a search firm.

Our School Board members may or may not know this, but as a school board member you can call a board member of virtually any of the nation's 15,000 school boards and they'll take your call.

I talked to the federal Secretary of Education when he was in Iowa City; he provided much of my information about the optimum size for a high school. I talked to the head of the Iowa Department of Education to get his judgment about Iowa's best superintendents who could be attracted to Iowa City when the Board ultimately hired Lane Plugge.

It's inconceivable to me that the combined efforts of the UI College of Education faculty, the ICCSD's administrators and teachers (and parents), the Iowa School Board Association, Iowa Department of Education, and Iowa Education Association would not produce a better list of potential superintendents than any search firm in the country could find for us. And the list that resulted would be our list, not the sterile guess of an out-of-state search firm as to who might be a good fit.

4. Search firms may not be all they represent themselves to be. Here is but one of a number of shocking personal experiences with search firms. I was involved as a board member in a personnel search for a highly paid, responsible executive position in which a reputable search firm was used. I took on the task of getting some firsthand information about one of the finalists. Over the course of a weekend I was able to track down board members of the place where the person was formerly employed, employees who worked there, union officers, journalists, local leaders and citizens. Each was very candid in their appraisals. I was also able to find and evaluate nearly 100 sites on the Internet with information about this finalist.

What was shocking? Every single one of the persons I talked to told me they had never been contacted by any member of that search firm. Not a single one of the documents I found on the Internet, or their content, was reflected in the firm's report to us. Another applicant on the firm's short list to whom I spoke after we'd made our selection told me a comparable story: none of the references he had passed along to the search firm was ever contacted.

Now I'm not asserting that all search firms are worthless, incompetent or fraudulent. In the first place, how would I know? And in the second place, I would doubt it; I suspect there are some that do their job conscientiously, with competence and skill. The fact is, as an industry their results are mixed at best.

5. Other districts have chosen to do away with search firms. Some of our Board members are saying the Board needs to use a search firm because, well, that's just the way it's done. It turns out that's not the way it's done; at least not everywhere; at least not in progressive districts.

Consider Kathleen Kingsbury, "The Great Superintendent Search; How the hiring process really works," Scholastic's Administrator Magazine, September/October 2009. Here are some excerpts:

More and more cases such as the missed information in San Jose [a board that had to discharge a recently-hired superintendent for financial "irregularities," was unaware when they hired him of a story, available on the Internet, that he had been investigated for "mishandling" $100,000 in his prior position] are forcing boards to question the value of making these decisions behind closed doors—and whether or not it’s worth it to hire a search firm to do the job.

In the Web 2.0 world, the media, blogosphere, and community members may be able to vet a contender better—and faster—than any search firm. Plus, gathering input from the public before a candidate is hired could ensure a better fit down the line.

One board that may do things differently this year is the one running the San Diego Unified School District. The district is about to embark on its third search since 2005, having lost its most recent superintendent, Terry Grier, to Houston, Texas, in late August. There is at least one board member suggesting that this time the district forgo hiring a search firm—as was done the previous two times—and open up the process. . . .

Barrera acknowledges this type of search would, no doubt, be longer, and would be unlikely to result in a candidate who pleases everyone. But, he predicts, “We’ll have someone who can unite our community because everyone will have ownership over selecting that person.”

If San Diego ultimately does choose a community vetting process, it will be following the lead of a handful of districts such as Minneapolis and Portland, Maine, which have had mixed but generally successful results. . . .

Portland’s school board, facing a $2 million deficit, decided last year not to use a search firm to choose its next leader. Instead, board member Sarah Thompson headed up a 30-person selection committee made up entirely of local stakeholders, including parents, administrators, teachers, a student, and two non-parent taxpayers. “We figured, who would know better than our own community what kind of superintendent Portland needed,” Thompson says. . . . "[W]e Googled every single contender, and I called every single reference to check out any red flags,” Thompson says. . . .

San Diego could also adopt a hybrid approach like the one used in Houston, . . ..

“This was no glossing-over round of public forums,” says board president Lawrence Marshall. “They did exhaustive interviews of all the players here in Houston. And, in the end, they [the public forums] were able, even better than we [the board members] were, to really crystallize what our next superintendent should look like.” . . .

Privacy and a professional search firm are no guarantee of a good choice, however. Just look at what happened to Barbara Erwin. Erwin was the superintendent in Kentucky’s St. Charles district when she was being considered for the post of commissioner of education in 2007. When it was announced that Erwin was a finalist for the job, reporters at the Louisville Courier-Journal quickly uncovered multiple errors and exaggerations on her resume, including awards she’d never won and presentations she’d never made. If a district doesn’t do its own vetting, the media and the blogosphere will do the job for them.
Jamaal abdul-Alim, "Franklin schools search criticized; Cost to find leader too high, some say," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 10, 2007, tells a similar story about alternatives to search firms:
The Franklin School Board is spending twice as much as it did three years ago for a private search firm to find a new superintendent, even though a growing number of Wisconsin school districts have used a less expensive method with good results. Franklin School Board members approved $22,800 earlier this year to pay . . . an Illinois-based search firm. . ..

[W]hat irks some taxpayers here is that the School Board could have used the search services of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, which typically charges $3,000 to $6,000 to find a superintendent.

That's what nearby Greenfield School District did in 1993 and 2000 for its two most recent superintendents, . . .. The Greenfield district paid [the] Wisconsin Association of School Boards for the search that found [its new superintendent] from among 26 applicants nationwide. . . .

Kevin Fischer, a critic of the Franklin School Board, said the board's decision to use a private search firm instead of a less expensive way shows the board is "playing fast and loose with the taxpayers' money."

School Board members defended their decision.

. . . But districts that hire "headhunters" don't always end up with applicants that were actively recruited.

The Nicolet High School District, for instance, spent $16,000 to hire . . . an Illinois-based firm, to do a national search to replace Superintendent Elliott Moeser.

Nicolet hired Rick Monroe, principal of nearby Shorewood High School, who said he would have applied for the Nicolet position irrespective of how he found out about it. He read about it in an ad in Education Week. . . .
Think about it Board members -- and District stakeholders. This may just be one of those happy situations in which the cheaper solution produces the better results.

Thankfully, it now looks like some Board members may at least be thinking about the possibility of trying the radical option of just doing their job.

Let's hope they do. Find us a new superintendent. Spend that search firm money on our teachers.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
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Anonymous said...

It is weird how everyone in the USA runs to search firms, or outside consultants. And, as everyone also knows, if you're lucky enough to be a consultant or run a search firm you have a plum job that entails little responsibility, gives you big bucks and lots of perks.

When people are tired of the real world problems, they seek to open a consulting business, like a search firm. That way they don't deal with real problems, but simply are consultants.

Sports fans are appalled at the same inadequacies when a vacancy opens for say a basketball coach. You would think an AD could devote 5-10 min a week keeping track of teams around the country. That way he could follow what up and coming coach might be suited for the AD's college. Every coach out there is always looking for a better job, thus an AD should be able to head a basic search for a new coach armed with his own ideas. Furthermore he can make his own contacts in researching the vacancy.

However, wait until there is a vacancy. The AD will appoint a committee, and he will hire a search firm. Bob Bowlsby did this all the time at Iowa. Again,what are these guys doing with their time? Playing with spreadsheets of player's GPAs?

When Tom Davis was fired from Iowa basketball (a sad mistake) there was a search firm engaged because Bowlsby screwed up the football coach search after Hayden Fry (but got lucky Kirk Ferentz is a great coach). Any astute basketball fan could have drawn up a list of 10 coaching candidates in 1 hour. Put 2 or 3 fans together and give them an afternoon and a computer, odds are they could put together as competent report as a 100,000 search firm.

I was involved with a search firm once. A former student of mine had a job opening. A search firm called and asked if I would be interested, I said yes, then immediately called him for a short term employment situation.

The search firm simply put my name on a piece of paper, and faxed it to my student. For this they charged him 10,000.

10,000 for a name.

Search firms are one more nonproductive activity that leaders apparently feel they need these days. Like the President of the Univ of Iowa hires a person to write speeches, press releases, blah blah blah. What skills does she actually possess if she needs all these consultants? Does leadership think they worked so hard that now they should collect huge fees for sitting around while some mercenary does the actual work for them? That a simple search is beyond their limited capabilities?

These leaders should roll up their sleeves and actually work in the dirt. But no, you will never see themselves get dirty with real work.

A sign of a degenerating society is a royal class of leadership.

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