This search for a Wake County schools superintendent is less political, some say

Former Wake School schools superintendent Tony Tata walks into the board room to make an announcement after he was fired from his position in 2012.
Former Wake School schools superintendent Tony Tata walks into the board room to make an announcement after he was fired from his position in 2012. N&O file photo

Wake County school board members are defending their secretive search for the next superintendent of schools.

Wake’s school board does not plan to release the names of finalists who want to lead the country’s 15th-largest school district, although it made the process public five years ago. Some board members say this time is different because political tensions aren’t as high as they were in 2013.

For that superintendent search, Wake hired McPherson & Jacobson, a Nebraska-based firm, which said naming the finalists and having them meet with the public would make the process more transparent and lead to greater public support when the board made its choice.

This year the school board hired the N.C. School Boards Association.

“Both firms generally recommend a closed search because there are many candidates who put themselves in a vulnerable position if they are known to be applying to other districts,” school board member Jim Martin said. “In 2013, however, the tension and political climate in Wake County required a different type of operation.”

Five years ago, Wake was in the midst of debates about school assignment, busing and diversity. Democrats gained control of the school board and in 2012 fired superintendent Tony Tata, who had been hired by a Republican-led board. He had been in the job less than 20 months.

Jim Merrill, who replaced Tata, said he resigned Feb. 1 to begin his retirement. The school board praised him, saying he brought needed stability to the district.

“The community and the school system is in a very different place than in 2013, and that is why the search is being conducted in the manner it is,” said Martin, one of four current school board members who were on the board five years ago.

The N.C. School Boards Association also defends the plan to not name the finalists.

North Carolina law makes most personnel information confidential, said Allison Schafer, a veteran attorney with the association and the leader of Wake’s search team.

“That would include information about applicants for positions in the school system,” Schafer said in an email. “So, without express permission from the candidates, it is our position that it would violate their rights to release information about their application.”

Schafer, who has led more than 150 superintendent searches for North Carolina school districts, is convinced that open searches can hamper a school board’s quest to hire the best possible candidate.

“It is ... my experience from years of doing this work that if a board were to insist on requiring applicants for superintendent to give permission to release their names, many top candidates would withdraw from consideration or not apply in the first place,” she said.

“This is especially true of current superintendents, who are often concerned about whether public knowledge of their applications elsewhere could impair their ability to continue in their current positions if they do not ultimately get the job they are applying for,” she said.

Schafer said “that to insist on releasing the names of superintendent finalists almost always reduces the number and quality of applicants.”

Almost always.

In 2013, when Wake released the names of its superintendent finalists, it received 23 applications for the post. This time around, with a closed search, Wake received 20 applications for superintendent.

Schafer said she couldn’t speak to the 2013 search. “I do not know what the applicant pool was like in the last Wake County superintendent search so I cannot comment on any comparison,” she said. “In our recruiting efforts, we targeted experienced superintendents. There are only a limited number of people in the country who have experience at the level needed to manage Wake County. Those are the same individuals who are most likely to either choose not to apply in the case of an open search or withdraw from the search if their candidacy were to be made public.”

Board member Bill Fletcher said a closed search this time would protect the applicants. “The board decided not to expose candidates to potential retribution by their current employers – even the finalists,” he said.

“Our goal is and was to attract active superintendents who, until Wake’s position opened, had no intention of leaving their current positions,” Fletcher added. “The board promised confidentiality to applicants, and we are duty-bound to keep that promise all the way through the selection process.”

Schafer agreed with those who say community input is important in a superintendent search. “Because of North Carolina’s confidentiality laws and the risk of losing strong candidates, we have found that the best time to receive input is prior to the board receiving applications,” she said. “That way, the board can consider stakeholder views as it reviews applications and interviews candidates. The Wake County Board of Education has solicited and received thousands of survey responses and other input that it will use to guide its decision-making.”

Open searches, she added, are the exception to the rule. “If you review school superintendent searches across North Carolina, you will find that boards very rarely release the names of finalists prior to a decision,” she said. “That has become standard practice in this state.”

Scott Bolejack: 919-829-4629, @ScottBolejack