Features

Confidential Searches

Will Cincinnati’s stealth superintendent hunt become tomorrow’s standard protocol? by Linda Chion Kenney
The call came out of the blue. In fact, Alton Frailey is surprised to this day that he even answered the telephone because it was after hours and he was wrapping up a quick meeting in his school district office in Houston, Texas.

The call was from Nancy Noeske, a search consultant in Milwaukee, who wanted to talk to Frailey about his aspirations for becoming a superintendent. It was the third time the 42-year-old administrator, who started as a teacher in 1983, had been approached by a search firm to talk about his career objectives, and this time he took the bait, because this time there was nothing specific to talk about.

Or so he thought.

What Frailey didn’t know is that the call he answered triggered a chain of events that not only would lead to him being named superintendent in Cincinnati, Ohio, but also launched a vigorous debate over how far a search firm could—and should—go in ensuring the privacy of superintendent candidates.

One thing is certain: Frailey, by his own admission, would not have entertained, let alone accepted, the top school system position in Cincinnati had it not been for an understanding of confidentiality from the start. As Frailey himself put it, six months after accepting the job in Cincinnati: “I would not have been here had I not been able to keep my name out of the public eye, at least through that first round of discussions.”

Blanket Protection
Noteworthy about the process that catapulted Frailey from assistant superintendent in Houston’s 32,000-student Spring Branch Independent School District to superintendent of the 42,000-student Cincinnati schools is the extreme secrecy surrounding his naming as the first African-American male to lead Ohio’s third-largest school district. After what the Cincinnati Enquirer called “a lightning-quick, two-day interview process held in private meetings,” Frailey was hired on Sept. 6, 2002, to succeed outgoing superintendent Steven Adamowski, who left one month earlier for a university post in St. Louis.

The specifics are even more telling.

“We simply didn’t create a record,” Noeske says about the Cincinnati search, in which she interviewed the candidates by phone and took notes, not by surnames, but by code names, such as: “Candidate One” and “Candidate Two.” Indeed, it was a process similar to that used by her company, Milwaukee-based Proact Search, in New Orleans in 1998, in which the search materials were, as Noeske puts it, “sanitized.”

Noeske, in executive session, briefed the Cincinnati school board about the candidates, but kept their identities secret, and so, presumably, off the record. The candidates made their own arrangements to fly in for an interview and were reimbursed in cash. They checked into their hotel rooms under their code names and brought with them resumes and other background materials for the board’s perusal.

“They distributed their own materials and collected them before they left, knowing that if they left them behind, they would become part of the public record,” says Noeske, formerly with Overton Consulting. “So the records were never mine, or the board’s, to give.”

The Cincinnati Enquirer, arguing that the steps taken violated the First Amendment and Ohio’s Public Records Act, challenged the school board in federal court. A judge in February rejected the newspaper’s claim.

Beauty Pageants
With legal action on the Cincinnati case pending in state supreme court, search consultants and superintendents offered their views on how far confidentiality should go given the realities of today’s shrinking labor pool, the growing politicization of the superintendent position, and the increasingly demanding and specific hiring criteria established by school boards, particularly in this era of high-stakes testing. Throw into the mix the ubiquitous—and some would say insidious—reach of the Internet, and the argument is extended for the case of confidentiality, at least through the initial stages of a search.

Veteran superintendent Joan Kowal, who earlier this year was between jobs and considering another superintendent search, says her late husband, a headhunter for Fortune 500 companies, used to marvel at the steps she took to advance her career.

“When he watched what I would go through as a superintendent candidate, he would mention to me that he would never get qualified candidates to consider other opportunities if they had to contend with the way most superintendent searches are conducted,” says Kowal, who served as a district superintendent in California, Missouri and twice in Florida. “Florida is extremely open. From the time you submit your application, literally, it is a public document, and so, too, are the supporting documents.”

Noeske raises what she calls the “beauty pageant” aspect of the traditional superintendent search, in which the candidates meet with community groups in public meetings well attended by the media. “Let’s say a really top-notch person is one of the final three candidates, but that particular hometown paper doesn’t like them and publishes an unflattering editorial,” Noeske says.

“Those headlines in those newspapers follow that candidate wherever he goes. With the advent of the search engines on the Internet, those headlines follow the candidate for years. Now you’re not just exposing yourself to the risk of losing your current job but also exposing yourself to losing future jobs down the road.”

A Public Role
Still, some search consultants argue for a middle ground. Count among them Ken Underwood, a veteran search consultant with more than 20 years in the business, who says the Cincinnati approach should be reserved for a state like Florida, with its broad public disclosure laws, “because that’s the only thing they can do to attract prospects without messing up the candidates themselves.”

“I know people who would love to have a job in Florida, but they aren’t going to put their name in the pool because as soon as they do, it becomes public knowledge and the newspapers will put it out there and that can burn bridges back home,” says Underwood, a senior partner with Harold Webb Associates.

In general, though, Underwood lobbies for involving the community in the hiring decision—and not just by meeting in advance to determine a hiring profile.

“First of all, it is the board’s responsibility, by law, to hire the superintendent. That’s their job,” Underwood says. “But the superintendent is a public entity and the person who ends up there ultimately is going to have to work with the stakeholders of the system. They should have an opportunity to at least see the final candidates and ask them questions. There are a couple of reasons for that. One, it’s just the right thing to do for the people who are part of the system. And two, if the stakeholders are part of the hiring process, they’re more likely to buy into the person who’s coming in.”

Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, agrees with this assessment. “While I take exception and openly disagree with the process, I want to make it very, very clear that I have the utmost respect for our superintendent and his judgment and his skills,” Taylor said six months into Frailey’s tenure in Cincinnati. “But I also think that the process was undemocratic. There’s no question it was undemocratic. The public has a really big stake in their public schools. To systematically cut out the community at a time when we need the community’s support for funding and reforms, there seems to be a disconnect there.”

Kowal says superintendent searches need to be addressed both theoretically and practically, and thus a middle ground is necessary.

“Boards need to find ways to sanction some confidentiality early enough in the process so that they can attract good and viable candidates willing to look at leadership opportunities,” Kowal says. “If they can’t offer you some cushion, so that everything isn’t public from the time your name gets on an application, the only people who are going to send in an application are those nearing the end of their elected terms or those who are not currently employed.”

Under the Radar
The question is whether Cincinnati serves as a harbinger of future searches, but the question itself could be moot. While Cincinnati received a lot of media attention, it is not the first search of its kind.

“There’s about one or two of these types of searches a year, and many more you don’t hear about,” Underwood says. “The board just does it and the people don’t really care.” Such is the case in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania’s largest school system, where Pat Crawford has served six superintendents in her 24 years as director of communications for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

“We do not divulge the names of any finalists for the very strong reason that if it became public, it would hurt them in their current positions,” says Crawford, who calls her view on confidentiality “a common courtesy.”

“At one point, we did have finalists come in and speak to a group of community representatives from all parts of the county and each of the candidates had an opportunity to make a presentation,” Crawford adds. “We did that once and never again. For one thing, it seemed that a large number of community leaders had selected in their minds a favorite, and unfortunately that caused problems when one of the other candidates was hired. It made life very difficult for the new superintendent.”

Crawford acknowledges that in Pennsylvania, “our public records law is weak and not specific enough in some cases,” which allows Pittsburgh to take the stance it does. “We do get resumes and other written background materials, but that’s not a public record,” Crawford says. “They’re considered personnel records, which are not subject to sunshine laws.”

That’s not the case in Florida, where Mark Hart serves as director of communications for the Hillsborough County School District, the third largest district in Florida and the nation’s 11th-largest school system, serving some 175,000 students in 188 schools and centers.

“The news media would be all over us if we did a search like Cincinnati’s,” Hart says. “One of the consequences of having liberal public records laws in Florida is that we have a very robust journalism market and the press is very vigilant. It has defended the right to access in the past and I don’t see that changing unless there is a compelling reason, like the safety of students in school.

“The argument that the district may find they can’t get the best candidates if the process is totally in the sunshine is understandable,” Hart adds. “But I think that anybody who seeks a position in the public arena, regardless of whether they want to be a classroom teacher or a superintendent, knows that they are going to have less privacy than someone working in the private sector. It may well be that we don’t get to look at some candidates we might have otherwise, but ultimately the public is well served by the government sunshine laws of the state of Florida.”

A Shunned State
That’s not the view, though, of many search consultants who say they refuse to conduct searches in Florida.

“Florida takes it a little bit too far, as far as I’m concerned,” says Underwood, a long-time professor of education at Virginia Polytechnic and State University after spending 21 years as a superintendent. “I will not work in the state of Florida, where every person who applies finds his name in the newspaper. I don’t think that’s fair to the candidate. That appears in the paper and it gets back to their home community and part of the community says, ‘Good, we don’t want you anyway,’ and the other part says, ‘What’s wrong? Don’t you like us?’”

Underwood, though, is a not a fan of the Cincinnati search, and he is not alone. At the time of Frailey’s hiring, Taylor, the union president, said she was “at a loss of what to say because, as we know, this was a closed process. Citizens and teachers were shut out of the process.” David Wells, the associate editorial page editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, contended, “These are public jobs, and the public has a right to know who they’re looking at and who they’re not.” The paper, he adds, doesn’t buy the argument “that they can’t get the best candidates if they don’t keep quiet.”

But John O’Rourke, the 1997 National Superintendent of the Year and superintendent in Howard County, Md., takes exception to the blanket dismissal of the merits of confidentiality.

“Experienced superintendents understand that things are different in different places, but if you want to be able to attract the very best, you have to recognize what the public spectacle does to your candidate,” O’Rourke says. “There’s no question if you want an elite superintendent you have to be prepared to have a confidential process.”

Kim McCluski, board of education president for Pittsford, N.Y., Central Schools, where O’Rourke previously worked as superintendent, agrees. “With the way things are today, if you want a quality superintendent you need to do more of a confidential search than you did years ago,” she says. “Times have changed. Some of the best candidates may not be looking for a job because they’re unhappy. For them, it’s just another opportunity.”

Affronted Boards
Noeske defends the search procedures used in Cincinnati on several grounds. For starters, the process started in July and the board, with a bond referendum and tax levy coming up for a vote in November, wanted a superintendent hired by Labor Day or shortly after. The board also wanted a candidate with a strong track record in closing achievement gaps and raising overall student performance on state assessments.

“You can get all kinds of good people who are out of a job because their contract comes to an end and they’re looking for something else,” Noeske says. “But the really good fits are the people who are successfully employed, who probably are not looking for a job. A lot of people will say, ‘I don’t even want to talk to you. I’m happy where I am. Come see me in two years.’ They’re scared of losing that trust relationship they have with their current boss or school board.”

Mike Cochran, president of TCG Consulting, works with superintendents in the early stages of contract negotiations. A registered investment adviser, Cochran helps job candidates consider the financial ramifications of a new contract.

“How many people would change jobs in the corporate world if they advertised in the newspaper that you’re going on a job interview today and your employer saw it?” he asks. “The problem is that once the word leaks out in your home district, it may make your situation very, very difficult. There are some boards that take great offense that you would even consider leaving.”

Frailey didn’t want to take that chance. He was content with his new position as assistant superintendent in Spring Branch, Texas, and his elected position on the board of trustees of the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, where he resided with his wife and three young children. “I had never even thought about Cincinnati,” Frailey says. “I never thought about leaving Texas. I never even left Texas, and I lived and worked there for 20 years.”

Still he was flattered and honored when he was considered a good match for the urban district 895 miles as the crow flies from his workplace. As Frailey tells it: “I thought I had as much chance of getting [the Cincinnati job] as a snowball in southern Texas.”

Media Exposure
As much as he was pleased by the attention to his leadership skills, Frailey insists that he would not have entertained the thought of leaving if he had to expose his family and himself to the politics of an early innings search. “I knew if my name got out there, they would call around the state to ask about me, and I might not even make the final cut,” Frailey says. “I didn’t need that kind of drama in my life. I was very secure in the job I had and I thoroughly enjoyed the folks I was working with, including my secretary, who was with me for 12 years.”

While he had expected his name would leak out by the final round, that wasn’t the case in Cincinnati, where the community first heard about Frailey after he was hired.

“They interviewed me on Thursday and I had a second interview on Friday, and that’s when they decided I was their guy. I had a press conference at 1:45 p.m.,” Frailey says. “By the time I drove to the airport and called my wife, the press had already talked to her. At that point I knew my life was an open book. The only disturbing thing is that a reporter and photographer in Houston came to my house Saturday morning and we hadn’t even told our kids yet. We had to sit down that evening and quickly tell them, with no preparation at all.”

That confirmed for Frailey his views on confidentiality, at least in the early stages of a superintendent search. “I think you do have the right to that balance,” he says. “If someone is interested in talking to you, and you talk to them, sometimes as a courtesy, should that be out there in the public?”

State Legal Rules
That, of course, is the crux of the debate, and much of it has to do with the laws governing public information in each state and the vigilance of the press.

“In Illinois, everything is private. In Michigan, everything’s open. And we’re sort of in between. In Ohio, interviews are private but records are public,” says Richard Lewis, deputy executive director of the Ohio School Boards Association. “It’s difficult to take the position that you want to do things in secret. I think most boards want the community to be involved. Doing things behind closed doors does not often give the perception of openness and community involvement.”

Even in the most private searches, the consultants say they will involve the community by ascertaining from them what they are looking for in a candidate. They stress that is the ultimate responsibility of the school board to hire the superintendent.

Such is the position of William Attea, whose Illinois-based firm, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, at any given time is involved in numerous superintendent searches nationwide. Attea’s firm typically has some 8,000 resumes on file, making it one of the largest, if not the largest, superintendent search firm in the country.

“Our philosophy is that we think it is in the best interests of the school district to protect the identity of the candidate for as long as possible within the parameters of the law,” Attea says. “Your best superintendents usually are solid with their boards, they’re solid with the community and they’re solid with the teachers, and they’re not going to jeopardize that relationship, which at times takes years to build, to come in second, third or fourth in a district search and have everybody know about it.”

Attea notes that most states permit searches in executive session.

“Every search we’ve done this year that we could legitimately keep confidential the board has decided to keep it confidential,” he says.

But in the few cases where the community wanted open searches, Attea had a ready strategy for changing their minds.

“I asked them, ‘if it’s a choice between getting the best qualified candidate or the least qualified, what would you want?’ And they said, ‘If it’s going to affect quality, we’d rather keep it confidential.’ Then we asked, ‘If you personally were going to apply for a job, would you want your employer, your co-workers, and everyone else to know about it, when you don’t even know if you have a chance of getting it?’

“By then, I had the public in the palm of my hand,” Attea adds. “Overwhelmingly, parents and teachers told us, ‘If it’s a choice between quality and openness, we’ll choose quality, and if quality means confidentiality, we’ll accept confidentiality.’ ”

Linda Chion Kenney is a free-lance education writer in Valrico, Fla. E-mail: lindack@msn.com