K-12 Education

School superintendent searches often closed to the public

Cedar Rapids Superintendent Brad Buck says he wouldn't have applied if search was open

Ned Sellers, search consultant with Ray and Associates, talks during a meeting to collect input on the district’s search for a new superintendent at Marion High School in Marion on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Ned Sellers, search consultant with Ray and Associates, talks during a meeting to collect input on the district’s search for a new superintendent at Marion High School in Marion on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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Iowa school districts paid professional search firms more than $140,000 last year to help hire superintendents, with district leaders saying those agencies recruit more and better candidates and lighten the load for district staff.

But a Gazette review of 26 Iowa superintendent searches — including for Cedar Rapids Community School District — shows some of the same candidates were finalists in several searches. In other cases, the review found, the finalists’ names were kept secret, making it hard for the public to judge the quality of candidates.

“The school superintendent in many communities is one of the highest paid individuals and we put a lot of trust in that person, but the public is sort of cut out of that process,” said Randy Evans, executive director for the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. “You don’t know as a taxpayer what the school district is getting for the money they’re paying their search firms.”

Seventeen of 26 Iowa school districts that responded to a Gazette open-records request about their 2015 superintendent search said they hired a professional. Together, these schools spent $144,000 on search firm fees, with a median fee of $9,500.

Twelve of the 26 school districts did not name finalists.

Cedar Rapids’s search secret

Cedar Rapids Community Schools, which paid nearly $14,000 to Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates of Schaumburg, Ill., to lead its 2015 superintendent search, went with the firm’s advice to keep all candidate names confidential.

“Everybody wants to be in the know and be part of it, and we get that,” said John Laverty, Cedar Rapids school board president. “We’re also charged with finding the very best candidate.”

Bill Attea, the firm’s former president, said open searches scare away great leaders.

“Your good superintendents will not interview for jobs if it’s an open search because they don’t want to jeopardize the goodwill they’ve built with their (home school) board,” Attea told The Gazette.

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Once a school board or community knows their leader is interviewing for another job, they lose trust, Attea said. If the administrator doesn’t get the job, he or she must go back and repair relationships.

“Had the process not been closed, it would have been very unlikely that I would have applied for Cedar Rapids,” said Brad Buck, named Cedar Rapids superintendent in March 2015.

Buck was Iowa Department of Education director when he interviewed for the Cedar Rapids job.

“This was especially true given that I was an at-will employee with the Department of Education,” he noted.

Attea’s firm sought community input early in the process in lieu of letting residents meet finalists.

School board, community decides

The leaders of two Iowa-based search firms said they support naming finalists — if that’s what the school board wants.

“In Iowa, what I’ve always done is get it down to the top couple candidates and then utilized community forums,” said Gary Ray, president and founder of Ray and Associates, a national search firm based in Cedar Rapids. “Some candidates will tell you they won’t want to go through the public scrutiny. We’ll lose some — we always do — but if that’s what the board wants ...

Ray’s firm led 2015 superintendent searches for Marion and Solon, both of which named finalists.

Gaylord Tryon, president and founder of G. Tryon & Associates, based in Johnston, coordinated at least eight Iowa superintendent searches last year, including those for Tipton, Oelwein and Maquoketa. Finalists were named in five of those searches.

“It’s important to the public to know who the finalists are,” he said.

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When Iowa City was searching for a superintendent in 2010, three finalists toured the district, met with residents and with the board in public sessions. There were three days between the forums and the board vote in case community members had feedback.

Stephen Murley was named superintendent April 2010.

“People should be able to weigh in on what they want,” said Royceann Porter of Iowa City, who attended one of the superintendent forums.

“I believe in open searches,” said Nicholas Johnson, a retired University of Iowa law professor who served on the Iowa City school board from 1999 to 2002.

“Will it harm you somewhat? Sure,” he said of candidates. “But it should. Why should you be able to sneak around and look for a job elsewhere?”

Ray, who started Ray and Associates in 1975, has filled superintendent jobs from Seattle, Wash., to Palm Beach, Fla.

He starts by helping school boards develop a profile of the type of leader they want and need. Search firms actively recruit candidates, often convincing sitting superintendents to apply. They do background checks, talk with references and verify academic credentials before recommending finalists for interviews.

Search firms arrange interviews and can help districts with employment contracts.

For Marion’s 2015 opening, Ray and Associates brought Chris Dyer, a superintendent in Southampton, N.Y., and Michael Houselog, a superintendent in Belvidere, Ill., as finalists. Dyer was named in April 2015.

“Our job is to give our clients as many choices as possible,” Ray said.

It’s also important to find superintendent candidates who will stay, he said.

Superintendents nationwide change jobs every four years — sooner in large, urban districts — according to the Brookings Institution and the American Association of School Administrators. Superintendents placed by Ray’s firm stay with their districts nearly eight years, he said.

Hiring without a search firm

But do Iowa school districts need to pay thousands of dollars to hire a great leader?

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The state already has an online clearinghouse of all education jobs, TeachIowa.gov, launched in 2013. Districts are required to post all jobs on the site, which is free for districts and applicants. The state pays $222,500 a year for the site and another $27,500 to train district representatives how to use it.

Two smaller Iowa school districts that hired a new superintendent last year used TeachIowa.gov as a cheaper alternative to a search firm.

“Our district used a free state of Iowa website for recruiting and contacts within our area to find potential candidates in our search for a new superintendent,” said Peggy Rash, business manager and board secretary for the Mormon Trail School District, which has 267 students in far southern Iowa.

The district hired Lorna Paxson, who also serves as a principal for Diagonal School District.

There were more than 3,000 school district positions listed on TeachIowa.gov last week, with 10 of those for superintendents.

Superintendent shortage?

Search firm leaders say superintendents increasingly are scarce as baby boomers retire and superintendents are expected to take on additional roles, such as principal. While urban superintendents may have more diverse communities with complex issues, rural superintendents are increasingly leading two districts.

But it’s hard to prove there’s a superintendent shortage.

The median salary for Iowa superintendents is about $135,000, with large districts paying more than $200,000 a year, The Gazette reported in March.

The University of Northern Iowa’s superintendent program has had a consistent 12 to 17 new students each year, said coordinator Denise Schares. The two-year cohort-based program caters to school administrators, including principals, who want become superintendents.

“Our numbers have been stable and our candidates exceptional,” Schares said.

However, not all the people who complete the program decide to become superintendents.

“When you think about the budget times we’re in, this is a tough time to be a superintendent,” said Stephanie Mohorne, director of middle school education for the Waterloo Community School District. She completed the UNI superintendent program in 2014, but hasn’t interviewed for any superintendent jobs yet.

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“I’ve been in Waterloo for 14 years,” she said. “I really like to work in an urban setting.”

Dirk Halupnik was deputy superintendent at Linn-Mar before being named superintendent at Southeast Polk, a Des Moines suburb, in February 2015.

Halupnik was one of six Iowa educators who were finalists in more than one 2015 superintendent search reviewed by The Gazette. McPherson & Jacobson, based in Omaha, led the Western Dubuque search, in which Halupnik was one of five finalists.

Southeast Polk didn’t use a search firm to identify its three finalists. As the searches weren’t led by the same firm, it wasn’t an example of search firms showing multiple districts the same pool of candidates.

“My dad was a superintendent, so I saw both the good and the bad,” he said. “It’s a chance to affect a larger number of students with my work.”

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