Super search is a critical task for trustees

Christine Donnell believes the stakes could not be higher when a district is faced with replacing its superintendent.

Donnell, a former superintendent of the Meridian Joint School District, now works as an Idaho School Boards Association consultant who assists local school boards with superintendent searches.

“Often school boards realize it’s probably the most important decision they can make for their school district and community,” Donnell said. “The superintendent is, in fact, CEO of the school district.”

Echeverria
Karen Echeverria

This school year, a handful of Idaho districts including Blaine County, Garden Valley and Nampa are in the process of finding new superintendents.

While the process may be intimidating for volunteer school board members – especially if the district is faced with replacing a longtime superintendent – experts say trustees need to establish priorities from the outset.

“The first thing to do is sit down as a board and have a conversation with the board about what it is you’re looking for,” ISBA Executive Director Karen Echeverria said.

While it’s easy to announce: “We’re looking for the best,” Echeverria and Donnell said there are numerous considerations to weigh and the process is more difficult and costly than many expect.

  • Does the board want someone with a strong education background who could help improve academic performance and bond with teachers?
  • Would the district benefit most from someone who is a dynamic leader who is capable of developing a long-term strategic plan?
  • Is it important to pick someone with a strong financial background who can help the district emerge from a budget crisis?

“Then you want to craft a job description for a superintendent who meets whatever needs you’re really looking for,” Echeverria said.

Although assistant superintendents may be qualified and ready for a promotion, Echeverria and Donnell said it is important to stage a full search and interview process anyway.

That said, the in-house candidate or assistant superintendent might still rise to the top of the list of candidates to become a perfect successor.

Donnell served as assistant superintendent in charge of human resources and negotiations when she was promoted in 1998. And in Kuna, former assistant superintendent Wendy Johnson ascended to the top spot before this school year.

She told Idaho Education News in August the move is “an incredible challenge,” but the district’s culture of teamwork and her experience smoothed the transition.

“My role feels new, but then it doesn’t,” Johnson said. “I’ve already been in so many situations that I have great experience.”

Sometimes, district officials use the phrase “national search” when describing their hunt. Although district leaders often look out of state, “national search” is a bit of a misnomer.

“That search is usually focused in the surrounding states,” Echeverria said. “The likelihood of drawing someone in from New York is slim to none.”

Within Idaho, the circumstances particular districts face when replacing a superintendent vary greatly. Nampa is the third largest district in the state, and past Superintendent Gary Larsen left in September 2012, in the midst of a financial crisis. Then Interim Superintendent Thomas Michaelson stepped in, but resigned unexpectedly in May. Next up, Nampa High School Principal Pete Kohler was named interim superintendent while the board searches for a more permanent leader.

Nampa has convened a search committee comprised of education stakeholders and community leaders. The group is staging monthly public meetings, and will search for candidates through Jan. 9.

They hope to have finalists up for consideration early next year.

“We’re going to spend the time to really identify what priorities the community sees,” Nampa search co-chairwoman Molly Lenty said

Randy Schrader
Randy Schrader

In Garden Valley, one of the state’s smallest districts, Superintendent Randy Schrader gave board members notice this month that he intends to finish the school year and then retire. Schrader said he gave his notice early so he could assist with the search and potentially show his successor the ropes.

“Obviously, one of the best circumstances is where a superintendents gives the board adequate time to do a thorough search and make the decisions about where they want to go with a superintendent,” Echeverria said. “We know that’s not always the case, and sometimes things happen quickly.”

Donnell said it is often important for board members to have assistance with a search. While board members are likely to know the positive and negative qualities of an in-house candidate, they may only learn the good things about an outside applicant.

“Unfortunately what you see and what you hear isn’t always what you get,” Donnell said.

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