Executive Consultants Seek the Right Fit

School Administrator, June 2015

The most memorable superintendent search Tom Jacobson has managed over 24 years was for a tiny school district in the San Juan Islands in Washington. The district contacted his firm, McPherson and Jacobson, seeking to find a superintendent. Jacobson asked what the district’s enrollment was.

“Ten,” came the answer.

“Ten, you mean 10,000?” Jacobson asked.

“No,” was the reply, “10 students.”

Jacobson’s story illustrates a distinguishing quality of superintendent search work: No two superintendencies are exactly alike, and not every educator is well-suited to each opening.

Three large superintendent search firms and dozens of other much-smaller companies are part of an industry that act as matchmakers in a field with high demand for new talent but not always a ready supply of well-qualified candidates. The client is the board of education, and the elusive target is the best-fitting candidate.

The top executive search firms bring to the task a deep knowledge base of the job market and the job-hunting process, as well as their experience and expansive professional networks. These qualities enable them to put data on the superintendency job market into a useful context as they plan searches and advise clients and candidates.

McPherson & Jacobson, Ray and Associates and Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates are the three largest firms. McPherson & Jacobson, based in Omaha, Neb., has grown to nearly 100 associates in 36 states and handles 45 to 55 national and regional searches per year. The oldest firm is Ray and Associates in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; it manages up to 50 searches a year. Led by Gary Ray, the 40-year-old company employs 170 associates. CEO Louis Gatta runs Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates of Rosemont, Ill., which has 125 associates; HYA handles from 80 to 90 executive searches per year.

AASA’s Salary Survey

When details of the 2014 AASA Salary Survey, published in February, were shared with the CEOs of these firms, they affirmed the findings matched what they saw in their work: Salaries are rising and increase with enrollment, base salaries vary dramatically (from $36,000 to $315,000), more women and minorities are getting the top job, and women are making gains in salary over men except in districts with the largest enrollments. (See related story with details about the salary study below.)

Just why women’s salaries are higher than men’s are is not clear. “They do have more years of instructional experience when they come to the superintendency than men do,” says Bob McCord, a consultant who assisted with the survey analysis.

Job Opportunities

Supply and demand is at work (in today’s job market),” says Jacobson. “[I]f superintendents are not place-bound, they can go anywhere (they) want.” Likewise, when jobs require specialized knowledge and background, the few candidates who are well-qualified command top dollar.

In Palm Beach, Fla., Robert Avossa will take the helm July 6 at a salary of $350,000 and be responsible for a $1 billion budget. In San Francisco, Superintendent Richard Carranza’s salary will increase to $310,000 on July 1.

“The superintendent’s job is more complex than ever and requires specialized knowledge in many fields to understand the problems,” says Ray.

Digging Deeply

Search firms want to develop a portrait of what the board feels is the ideal candidate. They research the district’s history, board-superintendent relationships, board and superintendent turnover, and priorities and problems. They look at board minutes, newspaper articles and blogs. (Search firms encourage candidates to do the same due diligence on a district to which they may be applying.)

Next, firms actively recruit candidates through their professional networks and advertise openings. The goal is on getting a sufficient number of well-qualified applicants, knowing that a pool of 20 will be too small and a pool of 60 will be unlikely.

Recruiting requires a firm to assess candidate strengths, skills and experience. Sometimes applicants think they are qualified when they are not. “There’s a misperception that a superintendent somewhere … can do every job,” Ray says. “That is not the case. Some superintendents have outstanding records passing bond issues, others are change agents, and others are strong in instruction.”

Potential candidates must do a self-critique and divulge to the firm (and thus the board) any thing that might be raised as a problem. During the vetting process, a firm will research each applicant to gain a precise and accurate profile.

“Discussions with a candidate will touch on problems that occurred under the superintendent’s tenure,” says Jacobson. “Sometimes a superintendent has been dismissed from a previous position. The question that comes up is “What happened? Did the board change and the philosophy of the board changed? Was there wrongdoing on the part of the superintendent?”

This is where candidates are advised to be forthcoming. “Divulge everything upfront if it may be a problem that would come up in research,” says Gatta. “Realize that in the age of the Internet, it’s not whether it will come up — it will come up. Many boards can deal with incidents that were problematic, and consider them in the past if they know of them beforehand,” he adds.

The Best Fits

Applicant profiles are reviewed by the board, which makes the final decision. The firm then helps with contract negotiations.

“The best firms deliver candidates who will make a good fit because there is a congruence between the candidate’s skill set, vision and leadership style and the values and vision of the district, Gatta says. “(A good fit) means the leader will fit in with the culture of the community, and be comfortable with the board’s priorities and dynamics.

Liz Griffin is managing editor of School Administrator. E-mail:



AASA Salary Survey Highlights

For superintendents looking for a way to benchmark their compensation against their peers, the findings of AASA’s 2014 Salary Survey of 1,711 respondents from all 50 states provide a good start. Published in February, the survey shows a compensation picture that has mostly held steady, with a few noteworthy trends emerging over the past three years.

Highlights include these:

  • Wide salary range: One striking finding is the range of salaries reported. Respondents’ annual base salaries range from $36,000 to $315,000, averaging $122,000. Median salaries grow with district enrollment; the highest salaries are paid to superintendents of the largest districts. Assistant superintendent, principal, and teacher salaries also rose with district enrollment.
  • Slowly improving economic conditions: The economic state of the respondents’ districts is important for understanding the big picture of superintendents’ salaries. It has been improving over the last three years. This year, more than half of the respondents describe their district as stable, 10 percent described theirs as strong and nearly 40 percent described theirs as in declining condition.

Three percent of respondents reported strong and stable conditions. Those reporting declining conditions dropped by 6 percent from the 2013 study. While not dramatic, this marks an improvement over two years. Given the recovery from the 2008 recession, this trend is expected to continue slowly but steadily.

  • Benefits: Nearly nine of 10 respondents have a retirement package based on their salary. Over three quarters of respondents (76 percent) have medical/hospital coverage through the district. Post-retirement insurance is present in 23 percent of respondents’ contracts.
  • Respondent demographics: Respondents are predominantly male (79 percent) and white (94 percent) and represent rural districts (73 percent). The average age of a respondent is 52 years old, with female respondents trending slightly older than males.

Greater understanding of the significance of the salary and benefit data can be gained when one considers the findings of the AASA-sponsored decennial study of the superintendency by Theodore Kowalski in 2010. It documented the evolving role of the superintendent and accompanying changes in superintendent performance expectations. Compensation, including pay incentives, for superintendents has become more clearly connected to the success of the district.

The full report is available at “The American School Superintendent: 2010 Decennial Study,” also sponsored by AASA, is available from Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Leslie Finnan is a policy analyst at AASA. E-mail: Twitter: @LeslieFinnan