Superintendent Searches Public or Confidential?

Why Confidentiality Contributes to Quality Searches by WILLIAM J. ATTEA

Good morning, Arlene. My name is Bill Attea and I am with Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates. At present, we are assisting the board of education in Hometown, USA, with its superintendent search. You have been identified by one of our associates as a highly qualified individual who mirrors the profile the board has developed for this position, and we would like to confidentially talk to you about this position.

A pause, then silence. Finally comes a question from the recipient of the phone call.

William AtteaWilliam Attea is board chair of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, an executive search firm.

When I present this real-life scenario to client school boards and ask them what they think that opening question might be, boards invariably generate variations of these: Who suggested me? What does the position pay? What can you tell me about the school district? Why does the vacancy exist? Rarely do board members raise what, in reality, is the most-often asked opening question: How confidential will this search be?

When a highly qualified candidate learns the search will be conducted confidentially, a positive response is almost certain, in my experience running superintendent searches since 1988. Just as likely, the prospective candidate responds negatively to being told the search process will not be confidential.

Confidentiality is the item of highest priority to candidates who are highly successful and well regarded in their current positions. These are the candidates for the superintendency that we seek out when our firm works for client boards of education.

A second question that rapidly follows, once the potential candidate is assured of total confidentiality, is this: What can you tell me about the board? When we are able to assure confidentiality and share characteristics about a school board that suggest a respect for all members on the board, the superintendent, students, staff and others and an appreciation for the difference between governance and management, we have a solid base for recruitment. Much more often than not, we are able to secure the interest of a potential candidate in a position for which we are seeking a successful individual who has high stand-ards for quality, expectations and personal accountability.

Vulnerabilities Exposed
Why is confidentiality so important to these individuals? It is no secret that the superintendency is a high-profile position. Highly successful superintendents make difficult decisions about students, staffing, promotions and demotions, fiscal expenditures, organizational priorities, school closings, boundary adjustments and various other issues that present no-win scenarios. Successful superintendents make these difficult decisions in the best interest of students.

However, these decisions often conflict with adult desires, whether they be the wishes of parents, staff members or the community at large. Invariably, there will be some opposition to almost every difficult decision a superintendent makes. Superintendents who make these difficult decisions and are successful in their work cannot afford to set themselves up as vulnerable targets for their most vehement opponents.

When a superintendent with an effective track record publicly seeks another leadership position, that individual exposes his or her Achilles’ heel. Everyone from renegade board members who may disagree with the direction of the district to parents who have not gotten their way to staff members who may have been disciplined to community members who feel taxes are too high feels free to fire potshots at the superintendent’s loyalty (“the superintendent really isn’t interested in our community; he is just using it as a stepping stone”). They’ll question competency (“she is trying to get out of here because of the mess she has put us in”) and integrity (“he never really was interested in us; he was just trying to build a resume).”

Superintendents are public officials who probably work in the most visible fish bowl in American society. They cannot afford to expose an Achilles’ heel and hope to remain successful as a dynamic leader in this complex role. Hence, the need for confidentiality.

State Variations
From our firm’s experience in conducting almost 800 national searches (more than 600 of them for superintendents) over the past 22 years, we can assure client boards that we typically can present them with a stronger slate in a confidential search than we are able to do in a nonconfidential or open search. Unfortunately, laws in many states do not permit confidential searches. We find we can assemble slates with more highly qualified candidates in states that permit confidential searches than we can in states that do not.

State laws regarding confidentiality vary widely. In some states, such as Florida, the names of candidates must be released, if requested by the news media, a blogger or anyone else, as soon as an individual applies or submits something in writing — or even by virtue of someone sending a nomination letter on behalf of another. In other states, only the names of the individuals a school board interviews have to be made public.

The degree of confidentiality permissible in a superintendent search affects the relative quality of candidates that can be recruited for that search. Our firm believes that state laws that permit no confidentiality or limit confidentiality diminish the quality of executive leadership that can be secured for educating children in those places.

A situation that occurred in Oregon illustrates this vividly. In Oregon, the news media is permitted to observe executive or closed sessions of a school board but are not permitted to report on them until public action is taken. The logic for this law is that it will provide the news media the necessary background to more thoroughly report on the ultimate decision of a board if they observed the deliberations leading up to the decision. In this case, the observing newspaper reporter started his evaluation of the potential candidates as soon as the school board received the names in closed session.

The reporter found information on all candidates except one. He proceeded to call the newspaper librarian in the city in which the superintendent served and asked for information about that superintendent for a story he purportedly was preparing. The news librarian considered this an odd request and called the school district in the community where the reporter worked. Sure enough, there was a superintendent vacancy in that district.

The news librarian passed along the information to his reporters who called the superintendent and asked if he had applied for the opening in the other city. He denied he ever applied (which was true because the candidate had been recruited and his name had been submitted to the board via his resume rather than a formal application). Regardless, at a public board of education meeting that evening, the press addressed the question to the superintendent again. At the public meeting, the candidate acknowledged he had been recruited for the position but he had decided he would not interview for the position.

The superintendent called me after the meeting, explained what had happened and withdrew his candidacy. By noon on the following day, all five of the individuals who had agreed to interview for that position had withdrawn their respective agreements to meet with the board. Word of the breach of confidentiality in regards to this particular search had spread to all of the potential candidates that quickly! This probably is why some state legislatures, such as Texas, have modified their laws to permit more confidential employment searches for superintendents and other leadership positions.

We recognize and appreciate the advantages of a nonconfidential or open search. If we lived in a perfect world, one in which quality leaders could express their interest in another position without negatively impacting their current position, we would be strong advocates for nonconfidential searches. Most candidates who are highly successful in their current positions cannot aggressively seek a new post in a nonconfidential search without damaging their capacity to lead and their status in their current roles.

Strong Sentiments
It’s not only our firm’s experiences that lead to this stance. Consider the sentiments of many parents and teachers when they are challenged with this scenario: Would you prefer to be involved in the superintendent search process if it meant we would be able to recruit less-qualified individuals to consider for leading your school district or would you support a confidential search that would enable us to recruit better-qualified individuals for the position?

Invariably, but not unanimously, most individuals and groups presented with this either-or situation will opt out of personal involvement in a search process that’s unlikely to secure the most highly qualified candidates. We have assisted school boards in several communities that went on record at the outset saying parents and staff members would be involved in the superintendent selection process before contracting for our services and then subsequently reversing themselves when they received feedback from their stakeholders, albeit reluctantly in some cases, that the quality of candidates trumps open searches that are replete with public engagement.

Of course, we also have to deal with the news media. Invariably, the press is the most vocal advocate for open searches, arguing for the public’s right to know. However, I have yet to meet a reporter who indicated he or she would apply for a position in an open search. To the contrary, when I’ve asked many reporters whether they would apply for another position if their current employer was made aware of it, none have said yes. Frequently they respond, “If I did that, I’d probably get fired.”

The news media’s sentiment is echoed by many county and state legislators who seem blind to the differences between the election of public officials and the appointment of public officials. They often chide school districts about needing to be run more like businesses. Having recruited individuals from the business sector to consider the superintendency, the most frequent reasons they cite for refraining are the lack of confidentiality in the selection process and/or the inability to address significant issues in closed session if they were selected.

To get elected, legislators want and need as much public exposure as possible. The more exposure the better. They apply the same attitude toward the superintendency, failing to appreciate that confidentiality in the selection of an appointed official is generally as important as name recognition is to the selection of an elected official.

Until we get this point across and bring state laws in synch with what is best for school leadership, states that do not permit confidential searches will continue doing a disservice to the students in their public schools.

William Attea, a former superintendent, chairs the board of directors of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates in Rosemont, Ill. E-mail: billattea@comcast.net