The great superintendent search. Executive recruiters help school boards fill top jobs

Wilson Riles listened intently. Those speaking were parents, students, teachers, and business people who on this balmy Saturday had left lawn mowers, baseball gloves, and household chores to come to the board of education office and tell Riles what kind of school superintendent they wanted. And what were they looking for? Intelligence, openness, compassion, charisma, financial savvy, people skills, management skills, educational skills, education credentials, and above all, a belief that all children can learn. Very simply, one man said, the new superintendent ``must be able to walk on water.''

It is Riles's job to find such a person, if one exists. Riles, who was California's state superintendent of education before he retired in 1982, is among a growing number of consultants who are helping school boards find the finest for top jobs in the nation's schools. He is education's answer to the executive recruiter, often known by the inelegant title ``corporate headhunter.''

Recruiters are not new to education. In the past, when a superintendent's post opened, school boards frequently hired local consultants -- college professors, retired educators, or their state school board association -- to conduct state and regional searches for good candidates.

What is new is that the searches have gone national, and a number of boards have begun turning to recruiters in the corporate world to do the job. Riles works on retainer for Korn Ferry International, well-known in corporate circles as the world's largest executive search firm.

Korn Ferry launched its education specialty in 1982 when it hired Dr. Ira Krinsky, former deputy superintendent of the Pomona, Calif., schools, to head the effort. ``Most of our work is in higher education,'' says Dr. Krinsky, ``but we like to do a few of these superintendent searches once in a while. They're very complex, but they're very important.''

Indeed, according to Donna Haines, who coordinates a recruitment service for the National School Boards Association (NSBA), hiring a superintendent may be the most important thing school boards do, and they are turning increasingly to independent recruiters to help them do it.

The NSBA, a collegial association representing about 97 percent of the school boards in America, formally launched its service in 1978 in response to a growing demand from school boards. (For years, the NSBA had informally offered assistance when school boards asked for help.) The NSBA keeps a well-known, respected educator on retainer to assist with the searches: Dr. Carroll Johnson, professor emeritus at Teachers College of Columbia University.

``A number of school districts that wouldn't have thought of going outside in the past [to recruit] are doing so now for the simple reason that they're seeing education is such a national issue. They want to expose themselves to a large group of candidates,'' says Ms. Haines.

While it is certainly cheaper for a school board to conduct its own search than to use an executive search firm, or even a service like the NSBA's, many board members believe the consultants are worth the price.

Herbert Brown, the Cincinnati board of education member who is coordinating the search with Korn Ferry, says the board wanted a firm with expertise in the corporate arena.

``I think there is a growing school of thought that a superintendent must be an education professional but also . . . must have strong administrative and management skills,'' he adds.

``Some good candidates are reluctant to apply directly to a board of education because they fear there will be a breach of confidentiality, and, too, most of our board members are employed. We currently spend an awful lot of time formulating policy for the board of education, and we felt there simply wasn't enough time for us to do the interviews -- make the [needed] contacts so we could be confident we had the best person for the job -- and not subtract from the amount of time and attention we need to give to other areas of school governance.''

Others believe, as Cincinnati School Board member Ginger Rhodes does, that ``what we are buying here is an objective process.''

Outside consultants, she says, typically open the process of selecting a superintendent to the community, as Riles did with his Saturday morning session. The consultant, she notes, works independently of any special interest groups in the school system, and removes any question of whether there is a hidden agenda in the selection process or whether the superintendent will be chosen through the ``good old boy'' network.

The cost of such services is not cheap. The NSBA charges a fee of $10,500 plus expenses for its assistance. Korn Ferry's bill to Cincinnati represents a percentage of the salary and benefits of the new superintendent plus expenses, which one school board member estimates could push the cost to $60,000. Percentage arrangements are normally used by corporate search consultants, which may explain why few school boards have turned to them until now, and why few firms have moved to specialize in this area.

Those who do specialize in education are more likely to be the independent consultants and organizations like the NSBA, whose flat fee is more within reach of school budgets.

Many school districts, however, are willing to pay the price. As Ms. Rhodes says, ``In my opinion, what we are buying here is $60,000 worth of public confidence, and if that means the community will work well with the new superintendent because they were involved in the selection, then I think it's worth it.''

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