The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board isn’t yet sold on the idea of hiring the NC School Board Association to manage its search for a new superintendent.
For a flat fee of less than $20,000plus expenses, the NC School Board Association will manage the search process to help the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board select the district’s next superintendent.
Board members left a special meeting on Wednesday evening wanting more information about other districts’ experiences with the association’s handling of superintendent searches compared to services from private search firms. But the pitch from Allison Schafer, the association’s director of policy and legal counsel, provided a rough overview of what the process is likely to look like.
Community members often want transparency, but Schafer said finalists who are typically working as superintendents or assistant superintendents in other districts rarely agree to have their names released. Requiring them to go public before the final selection is likely to chase away the top talent, she said. For that reason, the association recommends that school boards hold community forums to get public input on the qualities people want in a superintendent before whittling down the field to a three or four finalists.
Board Chair Malishai Woodbury asked Schafer what she thought about the idea of appointing an advisory committee. Schafer discouraged against it, arguing that it can create an exclusionary dynamic.
“You need to be careful — ‘Oh, these are the people that are important; the other people aren’t as important,’” she said. “You don’t want to say, ‘These groups we want to hear from, and these groups we don’t.’ You want everybody to feel like they’re included. If you start selecting people, that’s not what you want. You want everything to be as open as possible.”
She also said it would be okay for the school board to set up special focus groups to encourage input from particular constituencies like business owners, faith leaders and school staff, but due to state public meetings law all the events would have to be open to anyone who wanted to attend.
Among the school board’s nine members, only one — Elisabeth Motsinger — was serving the last time the board undertook a search for a new superintendent, which took place in late 2012 and early 2013.
Five out of nine members, including Woodbury, were elected to the board last year. The new board has emphasized that they’re looking for a leader who is committed to equity, Schafer said.
Barbara Burke, who represents urban District 1 alongside Woodbury, itemized a list of qualities that the board wants to see in the next superintendent in an interview following the meeting.
“Definitely someone with experience working as a superintendent in an urban school setting,” said Burke, a former assistant principal. “Someone who has the data to show they’ve been able to turn around a failing school or a failing school system. Someone with the references that can verify that they’ve done the work. In summary, someone who can move us in a forward direction.”
Ronda Mays, a social worker who serves as president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators, sounded some of the same themes. She said she’d like to see a superintendent who “will continue to listen to the educators and be involved with the community, and make certain that our students’ needs are being held of highest importance as far as resources that they need in the form of those tangible things, but also people resources…. And someone who has experience working with schools to turn around as far as the academic performance. That’s going to be important as well because we have a number of schools that have been identified as low performing.”
Action4Equity, a community coalition that filed a civil rights complaint prompting a federal investigation of the district’s handling of health and safety concerns at Ashley Elementary, has compiled a page-long list of recommendations for the search.
The coalition is calling on the school board to weigh candidates’ experiencing working “as an administrator in an urban system that has eliminated or reduced the achievement gap for black and white students, particularly males.” Under the heading of “knowledge,” Action4Equity seeks a superintendent who “understands how institutional racism has impacted all the structures in this society and can articulate this understanding with courage, and commitment to lead the district in this understanding.” And the coalition wants the board to be on the lookout for a leader with “the emotional intelligence and self-discipline to treat everyone with courtesy and respect.”
Schafer said a typical search takes six months from the start of the process to the new superintendent’s first day on the job. She said Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools could expect to receive 15 to 20 applicants, including some from out of state. With 32 years of experience, she said she’s conducted 165 searches.
Schafer said it’s a matter of pride that more than 50 percent of the applications received by the association over the past four years have come from minorities and more than 30 percent have come from women.
Board member Lida Calvert-Hayes said she likes the fact that the NC School Board Association is in-state and wouldn’t have to bill for exorbitant travel costs.
“I also like the diversity that she had,” Calvert-Hayes said. “Considering who we are — ladies — I found that to be very impressive,” she added, referencing the all-female board.
At the end of the meeting, board members said they want to talk to their counterparts at Guilford County Schools and Wake County Schools — two systems that hired the NC School Board Association to lead searches after previously using private firms. And they want to get pricing information from private firms.
“I think at the end of the day the suggestion from a comparable district was to weigh your options,” Woodbury said. “Listen to the profit side before you make a decision instead of hearing just one perspective. I think all of us are very comfortable with the NC School Board Association because we’re members; we’re used to them. I don’t think deciding to hear from another search firm says anything but we’re trying to be prudent about what we’re doing.”