A Process for Shielding Identities

by LINDA CHION KENNEY
To Bill Attea, it is a mathematical certainty that the more private the superintendent search process, the greater the quality of talent in the resulting pool of candidates.

“The more confidential the search, the better the reach,” says Attea, principal of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, one of the nation’s largest and most aggressive superintendent search firms.

It’s a principle Attea lives by, as evidenced by the creative ways he has found to recreate the status quo of superintendent searches. Forget Cincinnati, which attracted a good bit of media attention last fall because of the unusual steps taken to ensure the confidentiality of the candidates up until the final hiring. Cincinnati is just the tip of the iceberg.

“Five years ago, superintendent searches were all open, and they were expected to be open,” Attea says. “Three years ago it started to change. Now they’re mostly confidential. We went from mostly open to mostly confidential. That’s a dramatic change and I think it’s going to continue.”

Some observers take exception to that assessment, but they might not know how far some search consultants are pushing the envelope—or, more aptly, sealing it—to ensure the privacy of job candidates.

Testing Limits
Attea, a former superintendent in Illinois whose firm conducts about 40 superintendent searches a year, is determined to ensure confidentiality in the cause of recruiting exceptional candidates, even in Florida, where the toughest public records laws have deterred some of the most established search consultants from even practicing.

Earlier this year, Attea was set to test the limits in Collier County, a school system with 38,000 students in southwest Florida, based in Naples. Attea was not deterred, despite a legal challenge in Dayton, Ohio, which took his firm to task for how it balanced—or, by the court’s determination, failed to balance—the public’s right to know with the candidate’s preference for secrecy.

“The Dayton school attorney said we could guarantee confidentiality as long as we kept the materials because we were a private, independent firm,” Attea says. “When we presented papers to the school board, we presented them to the press also, but only for the final six candidates. The newspaper wanted all of them. We said no, and they brought a suit against us. The court ruled we had to reveal all the names.”

But Hazard, Young was one step ahead, feeling, as Attea puts it, “morally responsible.”

“Before the judge made the decision and before the board made its final decision, we called the candidates (who were not finalists) and told them a suit had been brought and that we were being asked to release names,” Attea says. “We told them, ‘We’ll have to release your name unless you want to withdraw your candidacy.’ ”

Open Access
Fast forward to Collier County, where Attea was hired in January to conduct a superintendent search. The school board contracted with Hazard, Young to handle the search for a successor to Superintendent Dan White, who would be taking on the role of deputy superintendent once his replacement was named, according to Leanne Zinser, a specialist in Collier County’s communication and information office.

To begin with, candidates were to be solicited for jobs in general because “once you declare your resume is for Collier County, we have to put it in a special file,” Attea says. “But rarely does someone call us to talk about just one search. That’s one advantage of using a search firm involved in multiple searches.”

With some 8,000 resumes on file at any given time, Attea’s firm is a major player in the nationwide superintendent search business. The firm’s might gives it a leg up in working in states like Florida, where virtually everything is in the sunshine. As Attea says: “If I was a superintendent in Florida and my secretary opened my mail, the press would have a right to read my mail before I do.”

In Collier County, Attea planned to submit only three names to the school board, thereby protecting the identities of the other prospects on the grounds they had not formally applied for the job. Indeed, three names were presented to the board in March and two of the candidates were called back for second interviews. A final selection was expected to be named by May 1, Zinser said.

In general, a search firm has a good shot at preserving confidentiality “as long as you don’t take notes and you have everything up here,” says Attea, pointing to his head.

“People we’ve talked to are very high-profile candidates,” he adds. “They said they’d be interested in considering [job opportunities] if we handle it this way.”

A New Protocol?
The Florida search, then, could be a harbinger for future hunts.

“If newspapers become more intrusive, probably what we would do in the future is identify finalists,” Attea says. “We would call the people who applied and give them the opportunity to withdraw their names before we submit to the board the final list. We’d say something like, ‘We’ve narrowed it down to five, and in all probability you won’t be in that five. You’re welcome to withdraw or to continue.’

“I don’t know if it would be legal or not,” Attea continues, “but until a ruling is made, I think we would be OK.”