When replacing a public school district superintendent, a board of education can conduct an open search, a closed search or no search at all. Each is allowed under Colorado law and has benefits and drawbacks that may not be to everyone’s liking.
“It really depends on how the district wants to gather community input,” Academy School District 20 spokeswoman Allison Cortez said.
Of the four Pikes Peak region superintendent positions being vacated at the end of this school year, two replacements are being selected under a closed system and two using an open system.
A closed search, which D-20 and the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind have chosen, eliminates the risk of discouraging people from applying because they don’t want their names made public if they become one of the top candidates, Cortez said.
Under the system, the community is asked for input before the process begins through committees, forums or surveys, but the only name the board announces publicly is the sole finalist.
“Rather than run the risk of narrowing the candidate pool before we even really got going, the search firm and the Board of Education decided they could attract the most stellar candidates and cast the widest net by conducting a closed search,” Cortez said.
Pam Hollich, a representative with Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, the executive search firm D-20 hired at a base cost of $45,000, said viable candidates have been known to “remove themselves from a search if their name is to be released, even if the opportunity is a perfect fit.”
Another local district seemed to have encountered that kind of situation last year. Just as Colorado Springs School District 11’s board was about to announce the three finalists for its superintendent position, one candidate withdrew from consideration.
The district held public interviews with the two remaining candidates and weighed the comments from the community before making an offer.
D-20 also used a closed search when the board selected the district’s current superintendent, Mark Hatchell, who, after 12 years of leading D-20 and 37 years working in education, is retiring June 30.
“The benefit of doing all the community research earlier in the process is that you’re really judging not candidates against each other but against the traits the community has said it wants,” Cortez said.
But some people wonder if it’s the best way to select a superintendent.
Becky Thomas, president of the 230-member Academy Education Association of D-20 and a paraprofessional at several schools, said teachers and others listed qualities and characteristics they’d like to see in the district’s next superintendent leading up to the search, they haven’t had any say since.
“I just hope they do right by the district,” she said.
Thomas said she and others are concerned about the search firm’s documented track record of recommending people to other districts who were unsuccessful in previous positions.
“We want to see the best person for the job,” she said, “and are hoping that’s what we get.”
In an open search, the public can meet the finalists, such as at the community forum Harrison School District 2 is holding Tuesday for its dual superintendent openings.
Attendees will be allowed to ask questions of the five candidates for two co-superintendent positions.
Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Monument is expected to announce finalists for its superintendent position Monday.
The Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind encountered opposition to using the closed format last month, when the board conducted private interviews with four finalists before naming its choice for the next leader.
Former teacher and student Kevin Harrer, who is deaf, also questioned the process.
“Our leaders of the deaf community are concerned about your solo announcement of a chosen superintendent and that the public be given a meaningful look at the decision-making process with respect to the hiring of a superintendent,” he said in an open records request, which was denied.
Under the Colorado Open Records Act, superintendent applicants’ records are confidential until the applicant is declared a finalist, which is defined as “an applicant or candidate who is a member of the final group of applicants or candidates.”
Then, records are subject to public inspection, except “letters of reference and medical, psychological and sociological information remain confidential.”
Search committees are allowed to screen applications, conduct interviews and discuss candidates’ merits in private, as long as the school district receives more than three qualified applications.
The slate of finalists must be announced at least 14 days before the board appoints a superintendent. The waiting period is “the line of demarcation between finalists and candidates that do not become named finalists,” according to state law.
D-20’s five board members last week received the first slate of candidates — those the search firm determined met the qualifications and matched the characteristics identified from community feedback.
“Rather than only hold a handful of open forums to meet finalists at the end of the search process, the search firm and the board decided conducting research from staff and community at the beginning of the process would yield greater participation and deeper feedback,” Cortez said.
In all, the district received input from 1,937 people, she said, which included 341 community members who were interviewed or attended forums, and 1,596 online surveys.
“Many different voices were heard, and the open feedback helped develop a leadership profile that will greatly aid in hiring the best individual for our district,” board President Tracey Johnson said.
About 35 applications from around the nation have been submitted, Cortez said. The deadline is March 26.
The pool will be narrowed to five to seven candidates. The board will announce the finalist on April 18.
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