By Mary Kay Morrow
The Hickman Mills C-1 School District will conduct a national search over the next few months for a permanent superintendent to take the reins on July 1, 2013.
School Board President Breman Anderson, Jr. made the announcement during a board retreat at the Holiday Inn Coco Key Resort on Saturday. The retreat included strong advice from an internationally-recognized leader in urban education, who urged the board to consider not only those things they must legally do, but also things they “should” do when conducting a search.
“I have full faith you will get good legal advice, but that is not the only thing you need to consider for the community outcome you desire,” said Dr. Brian Perkins, Director of the Urban Education Leaders Program at Columbia University. “This issue can clearly divide a board and split a community. When people get upset, it’s about where expectations were not clear.”
Anderson’s announcement ended a ten-month controversy about how to proceed with the superintendent’s position following Dr. Marge Williams’ announcement last summer that she would retire in June 2012.
The board asked Dr. Williams to provide them with a succession plan for her position.
In September 2011, in a closed session, the board voted 5-2 to accept her recommendation, which promoted former principal Dr. Everlyn Williams to Deputy Superintendent so she could shadow Dr. Marge in her last year, and promote her to Interim Superintendent for this 2012-13 school year.
The deputy/interim superintendent position was not posted, and interviews were not conducted. Not even Dr. Everlyn Williams herself was interviewed for the job.
That vote appeared to violate the board’s own written Policy 1015, which stated: “The Board of Education is solely responsible for the recruitment, selection and appointment of the superintendent of schools. The Board will conduct an active search to find the individual believed most capable of putting into action the policies of the Board.”
On Saturday, Anderson said the district will hire a law firm and contract a human resource specialist to insure the search is conducted properly.
“The board will vote. There will be a search. We will follow policy,” Anderson said.
“Anytime you introduce a search, it’s going to be national,” Anderson added – especially in light of technology that allows you to expand your search “with the click of a button.”
Anderson said Dr. Everlyn Williams will apply for the permanent superintendent role and “we welcome others to apply as well.”
Board members have expressed clear, but differing, preferences for the type of person who should lead the district. Darrell Curls and Dan Osman have pressed their colleagues for a national search process and timeline for nearly a year.
The board’s newest member, Eric Lowe, also supports a national search.
Board Vice President JT Brown and Bonnaye Mims maintain the best candidate will come from within the district, and have urged their associates to support the administration now in place. April Cushing stated her support in March of Brown’s and Mims’ desire to choose from within the district.
Anderson announced Saturday the formation of a superintendent search committee, and appointed Mims as chairperson, Dan Osman as vice-chair, and April Cushing, meaning that two of the three members of the committee have previously expressed a preference for hiring locally, or within the district.
The committee is charged with reviewing applicants and screening them to “three to five” candidates for the board to consider.
Dr. Perkins encouraged the board to get feedback from the community on who they would like to see lead the district.
For example, during the Grandview C-4 School District’s last superintendent search, top candidates met with business leaders, the community, and students, who all gave input on who they would hire.
“If you don’t engage people they always have the right to say, ‘You didn’t ask,’” Dr. Perkins told the Hickman Mills School Board on Saturday.
The decision to conduct a nationwide search comes after what Anderson, who has been board president since April, said was a great deal of discussion about how to go about the search process. The issue has not appeared on a public agenda, however, despite Osman’s multiple requests for it to be added.
At the retreat, Mims asked Dr. Perkins when the board could have time to work on the superintendent plan out of the public view.
“Unfortunately, because of Sunshine Laws, you can’t,” Perkins explained. He explained the exceptions to the law are pending litigation, contracts, and employment discussions.
On Saturday, Curls asked specifically if discussion about the selection process would be on the July agenda.
“It will definitely be on the agenda for July,” Anderson responded.
Dr. Perkins advocated a sense of urgency.
“My recommendation is to start yesterday,” he said.
Anderson is not wasting time.
“I will meet next week with the attorneys and human resources,” he said.
The superintendent selection is crucial for the district that has struggled to hold onto its accreditation, is currently undergoing a state audit, and has suffered declining enrollments, teacher lay-offs, and school closings.
Marsha Rudolph and Shari Silvers, two district patrons and employees since 1988, said they feel the district is at a crossroads due to its “relatively young board,” the state’s audit of the district currently underway, and changes in district leadership.
“We’re at a crucial time right now,” Silvers said. “The search is needed to get the best candidate. Unless you interview, how do you know you’ve got what you need?”
Dr. Perkins encouraged the board to build consensus about it’s superintendent search process.
“The last thing you want is for the process to be undermined by the board saying it wasn’t in agreement with the process up front,” Perkins said. “Delineate how (candidate) data will be collected and compared. What kind of data will you consider?
“There’s a lot at stake,” Perkins said. “It’s not easy.”
Perkins also emphasized the need to clarify the role Dr. Everlyn Williams will play during the coming year. In a team exercise, he asked board members to jot down their “overarching expectations” for Dr. Williams. After reviewing the responses, Dr. Perkins said no two people wrote the same answers.
“Your responses are as different as day and night,” he said. “You wrote everything from ‘keeping the status quo’ to ‘hiring new people to help us grow and expand the vision.’ She can’t do all of those things.”
Perkins stressed the need to clearly define the interim superintendent role this summer.
Board President Anderson closed Saturday’s retreat with a call to action.
“It appears we have a great deal of work to do,” he said. “It’s time for us to move forward.”