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Wednesday, March 21, 2007 02:33 pm

Measuring up

As District 186 hunts for its next superintendent, how open can the process be?

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Illustration by paul Lachine
Untitled Document The last time Springfield School District 186 chose a new superintendent, the process was cloaked in secrecy. The top three candidates, skimmed from a pool of 19 applicants, were interviewed in a ballroom at the Crowne Plaza by a panel of people who had been sworn to silence. A few days later, when the school board announced the new superintendent, the unsuccessful finalists disappeared without a trace. “I couldn’t tell you who the other two were to save my soul, and I don’t remember where they were from,” says Beryl Feldman, who earned a seat on the secret panel by being president of the classroom assistants’ union. Cinda Klickna, who served on the panel as a representative of the teachers’ union, likewise can’t name the runners-up. “I remember one guy, we all just felt that he was not going to fit into Springfield,” she says. “He walked in wearing all this gold jewelry, and he just seemed flashy instead of serious.”
Feldman recalls that one would-be superintendent had severe communication problems. “One guy was barely articulate,” she says, “but I couldn’t tell you if he was the bling guy or not.”
Given those options, choosing Diane Rutledge — who had already spent three decades working in District 186 and was making the next logical step up from her post as deputy superintendent — was practically a no-brainer. “It seemed like a general consensus that she was the strongest candidate,” says Sheila Stocks-Smith, who represented Springfield Parents for Public Schools on the committee. Although no one disagreed with the result, the hiring process itself left an unpleasant aftertaste. The State Journal-Register editorial writers devoted their prime Sunday space to criticism of a selection scheme so clandestine that even the number of participants on the interview panel could not be revealed. “The board asks taxpayers to pay the superintendent $150,000 a year. It ought to welcome the public in helping to hire such an important person,” the SJ-R opined. Four years later, in 2006, Rutledge announced that she planned to retire. Her contract will expire at the end of June, and the hunt for her successor is well under way. This time, the process is bound to be different. For starters, there’s no heir apparent within the district, so the school board faces the task of recruiting a superintendent from outside Springfield. To help lure worthy candidates, the board has spent $20,000 (plus expenses) to hire a full-service consulting firm and voted to offer the new superintendent a salary up to $220,000 per year. But so far, despite the fact that the financial stakes are higher and the candidates will almost surely be less familiar, there’s no assurance that this superintendent search will shake off the veil of secrecy that marked Rutledge’s hiring. Even board president Cheryl Wise — running for reelection against opponents who raise the openness of the superintendent selection as a campaign issue — plans to keep the process private unless a majority of board members vote to pry it open. “I don’t think an election is nearly as important as hiring the superintendent, so I want that done right,” Wise says. “If I lose the election because of it, then I do. I can accept that.”

Springfield school-board meetings aren’t known for fireworks. These twice-monthly affairs tend to be tedious, long on niceties and short on meat, a cross between bureaucracy and a tea party. There’s a lot of smiling and nodding and not much dissension. Tonight, March 22, the board will hold a special meeting that will determine how the superintendent search will proceed. The task of choosing a new school superintendent is, by far, the most exciting item on this officially nonpartisan, all-volunteer governmental body’s agenda. For most board members, this duty represents a once-in-a-tenure opportunity to make a decision that has a meaningful and lasting impact on the community. To Wise, the importance of the choice suggests it should be made in private. Other board members use the same reason to argue for more public participation. “The superintendent touches lives in a very personal, intimate way. It’s through your children or through your job if you’re a teacher,” says board member Erin Conley. “I think it’s really important that we make sure, as elected officials, that this process is as open as we can get it. You hear too much cynicism about closed-door hires. . . . I think we need to make sure that our community feels vested in our choice.”
So far, however, the sunshine some board members say they want is hidden behind a cloud of their own making. Ray and Associates Inc. — the Iowa-based consulting firm the board hired to handle the superintendent search — is exercising significant control over the process. For example, last week, after the application deadline had passed, Wise asked Ray how many candidates the nationwide search had produced. The consultants wouldn’t give her even a ballpark number, instead promising to present the information to the entire board tonight. All Wise knows is that the search yielded “plenty of interest,” by Ray’s standards. “In a way, it’s better for me to be just like everybody else and to not know and not have to deceive others,” Wise says. “That’s the deal. I’m fine with that.”
Ray representatives didn’t return phone calls seeking explanation of their methods. However, there are hints that the consulting firm doesn’t necessarily encourage amateur involvement. When board member Melinda LaBarre expressed a desire to do “site visits” of finalists’ home districts (not uncommon in such searches), “Ray and Associates were not real excited about it,” she says. When Wise asked about revealing the names of finalists in any way, Ray had a warning. “Gary Ray said sometimes that will kill the deal,” she says.
The consultants did solicit public input, albeit within a prefab framework. On Nov. 6, Ray and Associates scheduled a full day of meetings at the Prairie Capital Convention Center, assigning brief sessions to a variety of invited stakeholder groups and reserving two and a half hours for the general public. Participants were presented with a survey — a list of about 30 traits that would be desirable in any education administrator — and asked to choose 10 of the traits to describe the ideal superintendent for Springfield. Each board member also completed the survey. Wise says this exercise yielded 89 surveys — not a huge number in a district of 15,000 students. But LaBarre says the consultant told her the low turnout was a good sign: “They said that the fact there were not hundreds of people there to give input meant that the public as a whole was satisfied. In cities where the public isn’t satisfied, they’re there by the hundreds.”
Of course, the fact that there was less than a week’s notice of these sessions may also have influenced the turnout. “I think you need a lot of time, almost like a save-the-date kind of thing,” LaBarre says. “They [Ray and Associates] know that we have that criticism.”
The Ray team used the 89 forms to compose a profile of the person they hoped to recruit. This profile was published in a brochure suitable for distribution at conventions and was posted — along with more than a dozen other announcements from school districts seeking superintendents — on their Web site, Rayandassociatesonline.com. The candidate described by the profile sounds like a super superintendent: someone who “will inspire trust, has high levels of self-confidence and optimism, and models high standards of integrity and personal performance”; someone who can “build consensus and commitment among individuals and community groups with emphasis on family engagement” and who is “able to develop and communicate a vision of quality education for the future to the board, staff and community.”
But those three traits also appear on at least five other superintendent profiles on Ray’s Web site (Lorain, Ohio; Crete-Monee, in Illinois; Issaquah, Washington; Beaufort County, South Carolina; and Community Unit School District 303, in St. Charles, Ill.). In fact, nothing on the Springfield profile is unique. Each profile was apparently formed from the same menu; different school systems simply made different choices. Some of the items seem obvious — after all, who wouldn’t want a superintendent to have “successful experience in the selection and implementation of educational priorities consistent with the interests and needs of students, staff, board and community”? (That item is listed on Springfield’s profile, as well as the profiles of desired superintendents for Lorain, Issaquah, and St. Charles). LaBarre, who says she hadn’t looked at Ray’s Web site, wonders about the usefulness of such statements. “I think it’s a good list,” LaBarre says, “but I would be curious as to who that would eliminate, because it’s so broad.”

The fact that the superintendent search overlaps a school-board election has added fuel to the debate about openness. When board candidates realized that the current school board plans to choose the new superintendent before the April 17 election — a revelation announced last month in the SJ-R — several of them pounced on the topic as a campaign issue. Bill Looby, the AFL-CIO political director and an active PTA dad, running unopposed to fill the seat being vacated by Pat Grady, issued a press release calling that plan “troubling.”
“What’s the rush? I don’t want to implicate anyone, but it could be construed as being political if you’re trying to get it done before an election,” Looby says. Current board members say the candidates just haven’t been tuned in — that they couldn’t imagine leaving such an important task in the hands of rookies.
“That’s been our assumption all the way along, that we would hire a new superintendent in the first part of April,” says outgoing board veteran Rick Heironimus. Board president Wise particularly wants to have Heironimus’ input because Heironimus has been on the board almost 20 years. “I prefer to have the more experienced members make the decision,” she says. But she’s not so sure about including the public in the process. Wise, a certified public accountant who works for GIS Solutions Inc., believes that personnel matters should be confidential. “You have to remember, I come from the private sector, not the public sector. What I’m accustomed to is privacy when you decide to change jobs,” she says. “It will be interesting to see what the board decides in terms of how we’re going to do this.”

Back in 2002, about the same time at which the secret committee was meeting behind closed doors to select District 186’s current superintendent, the Champaign Community Unit School District 4 was also in the process of choosing its next superintendent. In Champaign, however, the process worked differently. From the beginning, the school board planned to include public input. That requirement was made clear at the earliest stage, when the board interviewed recruiting firms. Champaign liked Ray and Associates’ reputation for having a nationwide reach and hired the firm on the basis of its agreement to cooperate with an open process. “We really felt that the superintendent would not be accepted if it seemed like a smoke-filled-backroom process. We would not have chosen a search firm that was not amenable to this,” says Margie Skirvin, the current president of the school board in Champaign. “Ray and Associates wasn’t responsible for our school district; the board was. If the board is convinced that openness is important, the board makes the parameters. You can’t really let the search firm decide for you. When they go home, the community is who you have to deal with.”
After the Champaign superintendent candidates were screened by Ray and the school board, finalists spent a day meeting with a wide range of community groups. Then the entire community got a chance to meet the finalists at a public forum, where they were questioned by representatives of stakeholder groups and by audience members. The board ultimately hired Arthur R. Culver, who has instituted a similarly open process for choosing principals in Champaign schools. Brian Minsker, president of Champaign’s Council of Parent Teacher Associations, has become a fan of this open system. “We get even more public input now,” he says. The process of hiring principals in Champaign begins with formulating a profile, crafted not from a menu of options but from scratch. First, administrators meet with the campus staff and faculty to discuss the characteristics they want in a new principal, then they hold a similar meeting with parents and the community. Skirvin says the process is difficult but informative. “Since you’re not putting words in people’s mouths, you really get more of a sense of what’s important to them,” she says. The resulting list of criteria is used to screen applicants who respond to a national ad, and district administrators interview the best candidates. The top two or three are then presented to the school community in a public meeting, where each finalist gives a 15-minute presentation and takes questions from the audience. Audience members fill out evaluation forms, which the school board considers in its final hiring decision. Skirvin attends these forums and says that she is amazed at how the process works. “I have seen one person at one school be kind of the underdog and then go to another school the same evening and be the chosen one. It’s a fit issue,” she says. “At one school [a finalist] is chopped liver, and at another you can feel the audience being drawn to this person. I think it’s a healthy process, and people love it. I think it’s gotten good results.”
Minsker is also a fan of the forums. “The advantage we’ve found here is that the community and the staff all feel like they have a voice in the process,” he says. “You get the community to buy in on who’s being hired.”
The school board has cemented public input into its agenda, beginning each meeting by hearing from the teachers’ union, the support staff’s union, and the PTAs and ending each meeting with an invitation for any interested person to address the board. “It’s not an insular little group rubber-stamping things,” Minsker says. “They’ve embraced public input because they’ve learned that you absolutely have to have the support of the community to get things to work.”

The question of whether Springfield should pursue an open superintendent search or replay last go-round’s secret mission is one that members of that 2002 selection panel — whose number couldn’t even be revealed to the media — don’t mind answering. After all, who better to ask about a closed-door process than the people who were invited behind the veil? Sheila Stocks-Smith, now the mayor’s education liaison, didn’t like it then and says she abided by the terms only because that was the only way to be allowed on the committee. “At the time, I questioned that in front of everyone,” she says. “I think you need what we did but something else as well — an opportunity for the public to meet the candidates in some fashion.”
Beryl Feldman, still working in District 186 as an assistant in a kindergarten classroom — and who took her vow of silence so seriously that she never even told her own husband about the final interviews — has a few misgivings about adding the hoi polloi to the mix but is open to the idea of a public forum featuring finalists. “When you get too much input from just anybody, I think it confuses the matter a little bit,” she says. “I think I would kind of do what they did in Champaign, where, once the finalists are chosen, have an open session.”
Dave Shipley, who sat on the 2002 superintendent selection committee as then-president of the union representing District 186’s food-service and maintenance workers, didn’t even exercise his right to quiz the finalists. “I don’t believe people that much when I interview them anyway. They will tell you what you want to hear because they want the job,” he says. “I’m sorry, but I was president [of Local 15] for 27 years, and it bred cynicism in me.”
Shipley, now retired, is equally skeptical about the search for Rutledge’s successor, whether finalists appear at a public forum or not. “When it comes time to make the decision, the board is going to do it. By law, they have to,” he says. “No matter what kind of input they have, the board’s going to do the hiring.”
So even if the board votes to have an open process . . . “It still wouldn’t be,” Shipley says. Another committee member, Elbert Betts, approaches the question more seriously. Betts was on the 2002 committee as a representative of the NAACP, but he also had several decades of experience as an educator, retiring as principal of Southeast High School. He participated in Ray and Associates’ survey last November and hopes to meet the 2007 finalists in a Champaign-style public forum. “I don’t think anything was wrong with the way we did it. I think it was OK,” Betts says. “You have to say, ‘We’re not going to do what we did last time — let’s do something better this time.’ ”

District 186 holds a special meeting with Ray and Associates at 6 p.m. today, March 22, in the board room of the administrative center, 1900 W. Monroe St.
Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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