Wake school board deadlocks, then hires superintendent search firm

khui@newsobserver.comJanuary 8, 2013 

While Deborah Prickett, not seen, is addressing the public, fellow Wake County School Board Members (from left) Susan P. Evans, Keith Sutton, Christine Kushner, and Jim Martin huddle off to the side on stage. They gathered at Sanderson High School for the first of three public hearings on the 2013-14 Wake County student assignment plan.

COREY LOWENSTEIN — clowenst@newsobserver.com

— In a compromise move, the Wake County school board picked a Nebraska-based search firm Tuesday to lead the search for the next superintendent.

The board voted 7-1 to pay $47,030 to McPherson & Jacobson to recruit applicants to replace Tony Tata, who was fired in September. The decision came after the board was deadlocked between McPherson and the N.C. School Boards Association, which offered to do the search for around $20,000.

The board initially voted 4-4 for McPherson with Chairman Keith Sutton breaking from his fellow Democrats to join Republicans in supporting the out-of-state firm. The board then deadlocked 4-4 on the School Boards Association with Sutton again siding with the Republicans as they voted “no.”

After a brief recess, Democratic board members who had been saying they also liked McPherson agreed to change their votes. Only board member Kevin Hill continued to vote against hiring McPherson.

“As I said earlier, I was well pleased with the proposal from McPherson & Jacobson,” board member Susan Evans said. “I can support that firm if it gets the process moving and provides consensus.”

The board hopes to have a new superintendent in place by July 1 for the start of the 2013-14 school year. Despite the controversy over Tata’s firing, board members say they expect a lot of interest from people who want to lead the nation’s 16th-largest school system with 150,000 students.

In the meantime, Stephen Gainey will serve as interim superintendent. Gainey, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources, has been in charge since the board’s Democratic majority fired Tata.

Last week, Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Tata to be Secretary of Transportation.

Sutton told the board Tuesday that he intended to conduct this search differently.

Unlike 2010, when several board members were appointed to a search committee, Sutton said, the entire board would take part this time.

“It would make for a fair process and an inclusive process,” he said.

The board received four proposals after soliciting requests on the district’s website and on the state’s purchasing website. School officials said they followed the exact same process they’d use requesting proposals for other contracts.

Of the four bids, the most expensive, from Charlotte-based Coleman Lew + Associates, was tossed because board members felt there were too many questions. Board members estimated that it would have cost around $75,000 to use that firm.

The board also threw out the proposal from Illinois-based PROACT Search, the company that helped Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools hire Superintendent Heath Morrison. The firm offered to do the search for $26,500 to $30,500.

McPherson pointed to the various searches it’s done for other large districts, including Orange County in Florida, which includes Orlando; and Clark County in Nevada, which includes Las Vegas.

Republican board member John Tedesco said he was impressed with what McPherson can offer for less than half the cost of what the board paid in 2010 when it hired Heidrick & Struggles for $82,500 plus expenses.

“We need a firm that can attract some of the top national candidates,” he said.

Sutton said he also felt that McPherson might attract more national candidates. He said he was also impressed with how the firm would do community outreach to get input.

“Given the need to have a consensus superintendent, that input would be important,” he said.

The other Democratic members said they felt the School Boards Association could do a good national search for a lower price.

“We received a lot of pressure in recent months to curtail costs, and I believe our School Boards Association can provide a fine service at half the cost,” Evans said.

In other business Tuesday, board members agreed to vote Feb. 5 on replacing Chris Malone, who resigned his board seat to take his new position in the state House. Prior to the vote that evening, the board will interview all eight applicants for the position.

The applicants are seeking the District 1 seat that represents Wake Forest, Rolesville, Wendell, Zebulon, part of Knightdale and part of North Raleigh.

The new board member would finish out Malone’s term, which expires in November. Voters will decide in October who will win four-year terms to represent District 1 and three other school board seats on the ballot.

Seven of the applicants are Democrats, and one is a Republican. The board is officially nonpartisan but is led by a Democratic majority.

Among the important issues the new board member will vote on this year are the school construction bond issue that could go on the fall ballot, a new long-term student assignment plan, and hiring a permanent superintendent.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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