To make the right hire, hire the right way

It’s a fact of public school life: Senior staff turnover happens.

In urban school districts, the average superintendent tenure is 3 years, and that number’s not much higher in other communities. Needless to say, school board members spend a lot of time vetting and selecting new district leaders.

It would be nice if there was a blueprint—a tested approach—to ensure your district makes the right hire every time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to hiring,” says Dr. Gerald Dawkins, a former school superintendent in Michigan and Louisiana. “Each district needs to develop its own process for hiring top leaders, but they need to make sure their communities understand that process.”

One of the major differences in hiring is the vetting process—and whether districts choose to make the vetting process public or not.

School district leaders are going to face criticism. It’s the nature of the job. But keeping your community informed helps you build trust and support for your eventual decision.

As you’ll see from the three examples below, there are many ways to do that.

Baltimore’s quiet transition
Sometimes quiet is better. When school board members representing Maryland’s Baltimore County Public Schools began a new superintendent search in 2012, they decided on a “closed search process.”

According to Liz Bowie of the Baltimore Sun, the board hired a search firm to identify candidates, then privately interviewed finalists for the position. The board hoped to keep candidates’ names private and make the hire quickly. It succeeded.

And S. Dallas Dance became the district’s next superintendent.

Naturally, some community members were frustrated by the closed process. Several groups, including the local teachers’ union, regretted not having a chance to vet the candidate up front.

But Baltimore County avoided a full-blown controversy because it let its community know the process would be closed. So while many stakeholders weren’t happy about not having a say in the decision, they understood from the beginning how the process was intended to work and the reasons behind it.

Howard County invites feedback
While Dance was being considered for the superintendent position in Baltimore County, he was also a finalist for the position in neighboring Howard County Public Schools (HCPS) in Maryland. As was the school board’s eventual pick, Renee Foose.

The fact that both candidates were on two different shortlists was an unusual coincidence, writes Liz Bowie and Joe Burris for the Sun.

But even with a similar timeframe for hire and the same candidates, Howard chose to take a different approach to its vetting process.

After interviewing its candidates, the school board invited community members to a meet-and-greet with the finalists. It then invited feedback through social media, questionnaires, and email which board members used to inform their final decision.

The takeaway from the HCPS hire: A more involved community, may mean less criticism. While not everyone was happy with the final decision, being a part of the process left community members feeling included and heard.

Waterford broadcasts the process
When Waterford School District in Michigan recently performed its first superintendent search in 34 years, district leaders decided to invite the community to participate in every step, starting with a community survey asking for feedback on how the decision should be made.

When finalist candidates were chosen, the board invited community members to attend the interviews with those candidates. And in a nod to the 21st century, the board even posted videos of the interviews online.

In short, the board met their community where it was and gave the people a say in its final decision—Keith Wunderlich was the final choice, by the way.

There will always be some amount of criticism around high-profile school hires. There’s no such thing as a consensus choice. But, if your community understands how and why you’re following a certain hiring process, they’ll be much more inclined to support your decision.

What approach does your school district take to executive hires? Tell us in the comments.

Looking to invite your community into the hiring process? Ask them what they’re looking for in their next school leader.

1 reply »

  1. Good review of the pros and cons. I tend to advocate for “closed,” and my argument to the public has been, in so many words, that the process is open in that you’ve entrusted us (the board) to make these decisions. This isn’t always adequate alone, but providing the public with an opportunity to give input on the skills and traits of the next leader does enable them to contribute to the board’s selection process in a meaningful way,

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