Board-Savvy Superintendent

The Pandora’s Box of Collaborative Hiring

by Doug Eadie

Would a really board-savvy superintendent invite school board members to participate in interviewing candidates for executive-level positions that report to the superintendent?

Based on my experience over the years, I do have strong opinions on the subject, which I could just expound on here. However, I decided to discuss the question with two seasoned school leaders close to home and share the highlights of our discussion before weighing in with my take on the question.

Jane Gallucci, an 11-year member of the Pinellas County, Fla., school board in Tampa Bay, is president of the National School Boards Association. Clayton Wilcox is in his third year as Pinellas superintendent. Gallucci, Wilcox and I spent a thoroughly enjoyable hour together in the superintendent’s office recently to discuss the question. Here are some highlights of our discussion.

Q: Jane and Clayton, what’s your “gut” reaction to the question?
Well, to me, this is pretty much a “no brainer.” I can’t imagine a board-savvy superintendent — or any other CEO for that matter — inviting board members into the interview process. If there ever was a Pandora’s Box, this is it!

For one thing, involving the board in this way would dilute the superintendent’s accountability, as CEO, for all school district operations, including the performance of the top administrators. If board members are given a voice in deciding who will be recommended to fill executive vacancies, then they’ve crossed the line from governance to administration and can’t really hold the superintendent totally accountable.

I’d also be afraid that having board members participate in interviews would potentially politicize the process, and, God knows, we don’t need to make school leadership more political than it already is.

Clayton: I’m in 100 percent agreement with Jane on the accountability question. In my capacity as chief executive of my district, I’ve got to ensure the district is well managed, and really key to carrying out that responsibility is choosing the right people for top administrative jobs.

You know, matching a candidate with a job is a fine art that involves much more than merely looking at qualifications on paper. I’ve got to work in close partnership with my senior administrators, and part of the partnership equation is that very subjective thing we call chemistry. Only I can determine whether I can work comfortably and productively with a top lieutenant and whether that person will be a good fit with the rest of the executive team.

Doug: Would you expand a bit on the political point?

Jane: I can easily imagine this scenario: A majority of school board members are really attracted to a candidate who, in the interview process, impressed them with his or her command of educational issues and sheer presence. The superintendent, drawing on long experience as CEO, decides on another candidate, who doesn’t make as strong an impression in the interview process but is superbly qualified technically and is clearly a better fit with the other members of the executive team.

Now you’ve put the superintendent — needlessly, I might add — in a tough political situation that pits him against a majority of his own board. This is a classic can of worms if I’ve ever seen one.

Clayton: I’d sure hate to be caught in the situation Jane has described, which would leave me with only two choices — either having to use my CEO “line of credit” to change board members’ minds about the right person for the job or, equally bad, just caving in and abdicating my CEO responsibility by going with the majority. Of course, ironically, if I made the latter choice and the person ultimately didn’t work out, you’d better be sure I’d be blamed. Board members certainly wouldn’t be likely to publicly confess they’d forced me to make the wrong choice!

Jane: Don’t forget that here in Pinellas, the board has ample influence over the hiring process. Not only are board members required to formally approve all recommended hiring actions, our approval is also required to create positions, and we sign off on position descriptions. And if this isn’t enough, keep in mind the power of the purse is ours. No one gets paid unless we’ve adopted a budget covering the salaries.

Doug: Well, Jane and Clayton, can you think of any situation where you’d get school board members involved in interviewing job candidates?

Clayton: Not really. The potential benefits — signaling to the board a commitment to close board-superintendent collaboration and having the benefit of board member input — are just overwhelmed by the potential accountability and political problems.

Jane: Amen! I couldn’t agree more.

In closing, you should know that I’m on the same page as Jane and Clayton. Involving school board members in interviewing candidates might be attractive in some ways theoretically, but in the real world, it’s not something I would ever recommend.

Doug Eadie is president of Doug Eadie and Co., 3 Sunny Point Terrace, Oldsmar, FL 34677.