Time is short in search for schools chief Identifying and hiring the right leader is a daunting challenge

City's deadline set by law

List of candidates is in hand

interviews are expected soon

November 18, 1997|By Stephen Henderson and Liz Bowie | Stephen Henderson and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

The city school board is searching for a new schools chief with high-level corporate experience and an understanding of urban educational challenges -- and by law has to choose one in the next six weeks. But some experts say finding such a candidate who will take the job is difficult, if not impossible.

Only a few urban school districts that have endeavored to hire leaders with nontraditional backgrounds have been at all successful, and none has hired someone away from a chief executive post at a large corporation. Seattle and Washington, D.C., have hired retired generals to lead their school districts. Minneapolis hired a consulting firm, and Chicago hired a former city budget director.

The new city school board will begin interviewing candidates for the post in the next few weeks, still resolute that someone will be in place by Dec. 31, as state law requires.

Jan Greenwood, a partner with Heidrick & Struggles Inc., the firm hired to do the search, said yesterday that only about 1 percent of the time is the firm asked to do such a wide search to get candidates from nontraditional backgrounds.

"We have a list of names that has been forwarded to us by Heidrick and Struggles," said board member Ed Brody, who is chairman of the committee heading the search. "We've reviewed that list and will begin talking with the ones we're interested in by the end of this month."

Brody would not discuss the number of candidates being considered or release any names. But he said the board has a good mix. Business people and educators. Marylanders and out-of-staters. Men and women, whites and African-Americans.

Greenwood and several other educators involved in national superintendent searches said persuading a business leader to give up a position that pays more, has better benefits and fewer hassles would be hard.

School boards, teachers and parents expect far too much of their school superintendent, said Michael D. Usdan, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, a program that tries to help train people for those jobs.

"They expect Moses and Jesus combined," he said. The person must not only have a rich educational background but be able to negotiate battles with legislators, teachers and other interest groups. Superintendents have become the lightning rods for problems. When things go wrong, they tend to get fired, he said.

"Under the best of circumstances, you have to keep your bags packed," said Usdan. "A lot of very talented people in education look at the job and what it entails and say, 'Who wants it?' " Usdan said.

School boards are growing increasingly reluctant to choose from the same pool of candidates and are beginning to look elsewhere.

Some systems are turning to home-grown talent, considering nontraditional candidates, or deciding to split the job among several people. Under the system created in Baltimore, a chief executive officer will be above a chief financial officer and a chief academic officer.

Peter Hutchinson, who ran Minneapolis schools for two years, believes an even more radical structure needs to be created. School systems should hire two people, one to negotiate contracts with employees and another to be accountable for the education of children, he said.

Hutchinson said he had been approached by the search firm. He said he would be interested in the job only if the school board is willing to rewrite the job description.

Hutchinson's experience includes 14 years at Dayton Hudson Corp., a department store group, and a job as the chief financial officer for Minneapolis. He runs Public Strategies Group Inc., a St. Paul consulting firm that had a contract to run the Minneapolis schools for two years. The firm's contract ended in June.

Public Strategies was brought in with the understanding that it was to make difficult and unpopular decisions needed to begin turning the system around and then leave. The firm's compensation was based on how well it did its job rather than a prearranged salary and benefits.

The Baltimore school board would not release the names of candidates being considered, but at least two likely candidates have said they are not interested. David W. Hornbeck -- Maryland's former superintendent who now heads the Philadelphia schools -- was asked in a telephone interview yesterday if he would consider the job. "No," he said. "I have a good job here. We have made good progress here, but we have some more things to do."

Howard Fuller, a former superintendent in Milwaukee, was contacted by Heidrick & Struggles but declined to participate in the search.

"I'm happy in the job I have now," said Fuller, a professor of education at Marquette University in Milwaukee. "Plus, these jobs are so difficult, dealing with the bureaucracies and everything. Especially if you want to make a difference for the kids, these jobs can take a toll on you."

In other national searches done by Heidrick & Struggles, several names surface frequently, including Daniel Domenech, a regional superintendent from New York state, Anthony Alvarado, also running a New York community school district, and James A. Williams, superintendent of the Dayton, Ohio, school district.

Domenech was named last week to head the Fairfax County, Va., schools.

"It has been a pretty closed circle of people with access to those jobs," said Hornbeck. "My own view is that people need not to look for an educator or a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman. They need to define what their mission is and then find someone who shares that vision."

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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