RALEIGH — The Wake County school board decided to spend almost twice as much for a company to search for its next superintendent as it would have cost to hire the next highest bidder.
But the extra cost of about $40,000 to hire the Illinois-based executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles will be well worth it to bring about the kind of fundamental change the Wake board majority has promised, says Debra Goldman, the member heading up the board's search committee.
"It's a very difficult decision to spend any school system dollars," Goldman said. "By getting the best candidate, if he or she can streamline our policies and practices, it will be worth it in the long run."
Indications last week were that the board majority wants a top-level leader, perhaps someone from industry or another field, but also wants to keep a relatively tight rein on the person.
"We really need to get this going so that anyone looking at the job understands what's involved," Goldman said.
The board's policy committee agreed Thursday to recommend changing policy to require the superintendent to get board approval before reorganizing central office staff, including changing principals. The change would also result in the superintendent's needing board approval for spending any money for reorganizing the central office staff.
The nine-member board has to find a replacement for Del Burns, the career educator who announced his resignation in February rather than go along with plans to disassemble the system's policy of basing school assignment in part on student's socioeconomic status. The board has preliminarily agreed to change policies that would have dictated an initial internal search and required the candidate to have an earned doctoral degree and three years of education experience during the past decade.
Board member Keith Sutton, part of the four-person board minority that has resisted many of the new board's initiatives, is troubled by the changes made by the majority in the superintendent search. It's part of what he said was a general pattern of needlessly discarding policies on an ad hoc basis.
"We have the knee-jerk reaction to change policies to accommodate something a member might want," Sutton said. "Policies and bylaws are made to stand the test of time. Obviously you're required to tweak policies now and then, but not to accommodate someone's personal whim.
"You don't do it just because you have the numbers."
Sutton, along with members Anne McLaurin, Kevin Hill and Carolyn Morrison, has consistently lost on issues to the majority that includes vice chairman Goldman, chairman Ron Margiotta, John Tedesco, Chris Malone and Deborah Prickett. During changes involving the superintendent search, the majority chose to disassociate the board from both the national and North Carolina school boards associations.
The state body, which the majority regarded as too politicized, offered to conduct the search for up to $21,000, a quarter of the $82,500 plus expenses that Heidrick & Struggles, the most expensive option considered by the board, is charging.
"I would have been all in favor of the North Carolina School Board Association," Hill said. "I don't agree with the fact that they have a political agenda. I think their agenda is to provide the best education to the children of our state."
Tedesco said the board majority questioned the N.C. School Board Association's ability to recruit national candidates.
Tedesco said he doesn't have a specific person in mind to be superintendent. He's hoping that Heidrick will help them identify four or five applicants to choose from.
Ideally, Tedesco said he'd like the board to hire a superintendent within the next four to six months. But he said he will understand if it takes nine months to a year.
Tedesco expressed confidence in Donna Hargens remaining as interim superintendent. He pointed to how Hargens will receive $5,000 extra a month to run the district, far less than the around $25,000 a month that Burns would have gotten if he had stayed on. With Burns off the payroll as of Wednesday, Tedesco said, this will lead to savings that would pay for the search and possibly put money back into the system's coffers.
"This is a process where it doesn't make sense for us to be penny-wise and pound-foolish," he said. "We need to get the best person possible."
Tedesco said that Heidrick would be more capable than the other search firms - including Illinois-based Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, an applicant firm with much deeper experience in public school recruitment - in helping the school board find non-educators as candidates.
After Wake couldn't use the N.C. Schools Association because it had left the group, board minority members suggested hiring Hazard, which offered to do the work for $39,500.
"Hazard had good experience, but it was all in education," Tedesco said. "Heidrick has worked in public education, higher education, the corporate world and the nonprofit sector. There is a broad range of applicants they could give us."
The Houston, Texas, school district, with 202,000 students, employed Heidrick when it was searching for a superintendent. The single candidate it suggested was Terry Grier, an East Carolina University graduate and former superintendent of Guilford County Schools, who has now held the Houston job since 2009.
"I've never taken part in a search that was any better done or more professionally done than that search," Grier said the other day in a phone interview from Houston.
During his tenure in Houston, Grier said, the system has privatized the cafeteria system, paid out $41 million in merit pay and changed policy to allow the firing of tenured teachers whose students' test-score gains are at the low end of the scale.
"I'm not trying to fire teachers, but our reform strategy is to put a qualified teacher in every classroom," Grier said. "We don't want to reform schools; we want to transform them."
Told about Grier's efforts in Houston, Goldman smiled. Asked whether she'd be interested in bringing similar change to Wake, she relied on a favorite remark of school board members everywhere.
"I'm interested in anything that will help the children," Goldman said. "To me, this is all about the children."
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