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The Mayor and the Superintendent Search

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The Memphis City Schools Board of Education called a special meeting February 21st. Meeting minutes show a single item on the agenda: the search for a permanent superintendent of schools. The five board members who showed up — four were absent — voted to contract with Ray and Associates, an Iowa-based education executive headhunter, as the search firm for the job and allocated $42,475 to pay the firm.

School board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. told The Commercial Appeal March 22nd that the national search was a waste of taxpayer money if the most qualified person was already in our midst, implying that Mayor Willie Herenton should return to his former position atop Memphis City Schools (MCS). His statement came a month after the special meeting in which Whalum could have voted against the expenditure had he attended.

Bill Newman, executive director at Ray and Associates, explains the search process already under way here. "We come in and work with the public and staff and the board to build a profile for the position," he says. "We recruit to that profile and then bring the top candidates to the board. In this case, the board has requested that we receive the applications and submit to them only those with the closest fit to the profile."

Alvin Johnson, Atlanta-based regional director at Ray, will coordinate the search. He has been involved in searches for school superintendents in Newport News, Virginia, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Prince George County, Maryland, among others. Johnson explains that the search can involve both applicants for the job and candidates whom the firm identifies. "We will seek out individuals who we think meet the profile," Johnson says. "We're in the process of putting the profile together now."

Newman says that the basic criteria vary little from one superintendent job of this size to the next. "The [Memphis] board is looking for someone who will come in and raise academic achievement and engage the public in support, but that's pretty much universal [for any search]. There are 10 or 11 criteria that they've agreed to," he says, adding, "It's not necessarily important to have a local person."

Newman and Johnson have delivered their timetable to MCS. "We'll be meeting with the board toward the end of April or the beginning of May to present the top candidates," he says. "We will close this search on about the 24th or 25th and take two weeks to do the background investigation that's so important."

The board then will conduct interviews with the consultant-picked candidates. Since Ray conducts national searches for numerous school positions, they prefer to stay out of the interviews. "We don't attend the interviews because we really don't want candidates performing for us," Newman says. "We work with the board after the interviews to help make a choice to select somebody, or the top two, and plan for what they want to do next."

Herenton has not contacted Ray and Associates, nor have they contacted him about the job. "We'll wait to see if he applies for the position," Johnson says. "If the board members say that they want us to reach out to certain individuals, then we will do that. We certainly want the pool as broad as possible."

Will Herenton's announcement scare off other qualified candidates?

"If I was on the school board I'd want to know what kind of effect the mayor's announcement will have on the search for a new superintendent," says Tom Jones, the blogger for Smart City Consulting who has served as a top aide to three county mayors. Jones says if he wants the job, Herenton should be treated as a serious contender. But he's also concerned that the mayor's gambit could cool national interest in the superintendent position by scaring away top contenders.

"He may be the last man standing," Jones says. "Tell me, who is going to read that story in The New York Times and say, 'Oh yeah, I want to step into the middle of that hurricane.' It's hard enough just running a school district. Nobody wants to step into the middle of a political struggle."

In an online article titled "Back to the Future," Jones wrote that the school district ran better "under Superintendent Herenton than it has under anyone since." But he added, "There has been a lot of support in the community for this search. It should go on."

The mayor's ability to draw controversy doesn't undo his professional and academic credentials. It's not every day that a school system can hire a retired mayor of a major city who was once a serious contender to head some of America's largest school districts.

"It will be interesting to see what kind of comprehensive plan [the mayor] presents," Jones says. He adds that in order to assure continuity, the board of education, not the superintendent, should be responsible for crafting big-picture policy:

"Every superintendent comes in with a list of programs that last as long as the superintendent. There has got to be a system in place to make sure that students don't suffer every time we change superintendents.

"There is also this idea that we want a superintendent who is going to be with the system for 10 years," Jones adds. "But do we really want a superintendent who other districts aren't recruiting? Is having a superintendent who nobody else is recruiting any indication of success?"

Despite the time and money invested so far, the school board can still hire a candidate from outside the headhunting process. "The school board can do whatever they want," Newman says. "I don't think that's their intent. Their intent is to do a national search."

School board member Martavius Jones says, "The board is going to go ahead with the process we agreed upon. I don't know whether the mayor will submit his information to the search firm, but there's no one, mayor included, we will exclude from applying for the position."

The recent article in The New York Times quoted Herenton as saying, "When you're good, you don't seek positions, they seek you."

We'll see.

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