The Public Eye: Schools pay search firms to find superintendent candidates

The Public Eye
The Public Eye

Finding a new school district superintendent can be an arduous and expensive process.

Districts host public meetings, advertise in national publications and sift through dozens of résumés before conducting interviews for the position. Once trustees select finalists, they sometimes travel to glean additional information from colleagues of the job candidates.

In many cases, districts are paying tens of thousands of dollars to executive search firms to find potential superintendents.

The area’s largest school district, Elk Grove Unified, is in the midst of an effort to replace Superintendent Steven Ladd, who is retiring on Sept. 12. The 62,000-student district agreed to pay $29,000 to McPherson & Jacobson LLC to conduct the search, as well as cover expenses for travel, advertising, phone calls, background checks and office expenses.

Since Elk Grove Unified hired the firm on July 15, the company has led eight community meetings and 25 smaller gatherings with teachers, students and other stakeholders to help determine the characteristics that community members want in a superintendent. The district also has set up an online survey at

Though Ladd has been at the helm for more than nine years, the average superintendent tenure is only 41/2 years nationwide, 31/2years in metropolitan areas, according to Thomas Jacobson, CEO of McPherson & Jacobson. The short terms are due to a number of factors such as the highly political nature of the job and the fact that their bosses on the school board are constantly changing, he said.

Besides attracting candidates and soliciting ideas from the community, executive search companies generally evaluate applications, check references and develop interview questions to be used by the board. Consultants usually arrange interviews and sit in on them.

Sacramento City Unified’s school board spent six months conducting a search prior to hiring Superintendent José L. Banda, who started in July. The district paid $39,500 to Leadership Associates to find candidates. The firm and school board set up at least 25 meetings with labor groups, community members and other stakeholders, said district spokesman Gabe Ross. The district also conducted a survey of parents, students and staff in multiple languages, he said.

“The consultant’s job was simply to gather and get a good pool of qualified candidates for the board to choose from,” Ross said. “The board made the decision.”

Natomas Unified has undertaken more than its share of superintendent searches in recent years. The district has had five superintendents – including those serving in an interim capacity – in the last five years. In 2011, it agreed to pay $24,950 to Leadership Associates, which helped the district identify current Superintendent Chris Evans, who has just begun his third year with the district.

Twin Rivers Unified hired Steven Martinez – an associate superintendent from Fresno – as superintendent just over a year ago. The district paid CPS HR Consulting $25,300 to find candidates for the job.

The school district, which educates 31,000 students in the North Sacramento area, held four community forums and numerous other smaller meetings to gather information about the leadership skills the residents in the district were seeking. Community members said they wanted a superintendent from outside the school district – and the four former districts that make it up – to avoid favoritism. The district has faced internal political tensions since it was formed through the merger of four districts in 2007.

CPS consultant Pam Derby said a community group with one representative selected by each board member and each union were able to look at the résumés – with personal information redacted – and rank them.

Hiring a search firm allows human resources staff to continue with the daily business of the district, Jacobson said.

“HR is capable of doing it, but I’m convinced that you don’t want the HR department involved in hiring their own boss,” he said.

San Juan Unified and Folsom Cordova Unified are unique among large area districts for hiring internally and forgoing use of a superintendent-search firm. Folsom Cordova in 2010 hired Deborah Bettencourt, who previously served as chief financial officer, while San Juan this year picked Kent A. Kern, who started at the district in 1993 as a middle school teacher.

San Juan Unified, which has had four superintendents in the last nine years, held its own community workshops and surveyed the public online to find out what type of characteristics they would like in a leader. An internal team appointed by the school board worked with trustees to recruit and interview applicants. Community and staff members were invited to participate in interviews.

In Elk Grove, consultants from McPherson & Jacobson will work with the board to establish performance objectives for the new superintendent, according to the firm’s contract.

Considering the number of superintendents the region has seen in recent years, McPherson & Jacobson is offering a guarantee it might regret. The company has agreed to conduct another search for free if the new superintendent leaves within two years.

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