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ABSS’ ‘superintendent shuffle’ underway


Alamance-Burlington school board members heard from two recruiting firms that are willing to conduct a search for a new superintendent for ABSS but took no action to hire a search firm during their latest meeting Tuesday afternoon.

At least one school board member, Patsy Simpson, appears to be leaning toward having the board conduct its own search. Other board members haven’t publicly said what process they think should be used to hire a new superintendent.

Meanwhile, the clock’s ticking. Current ABSS superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson has asked for an early release from his employment contract, effective January 1, 2022. He remains on a temporary leave of absence after suffering a medical emergency believed to be a brain bleed or cerebral hemorrhage while riding his bicycle on October 15.

ABSS chief finance officer Jeremy Teetor is continuing to handle the superintendent’s duties while Benson is on leave.

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It appears that the earliest a new superintendent could report to work would be around February or March 2022, based on the presentations by two firms that have previously conducted superintendent searches for ABSS that school board members heard Tuesday.

The North Carolina School Boards Association is based in Raleigh and charges a flat fee of $21,500, which excludes advertising, travel, and related expenses, the board was told.

BWP & Associates is based in Libertyville, Illinois and would charge a flat fee of $22,500, which excludes clerical, travel, and advertising expenses, according to Wayne Harris of BWP & Associates.

Presenting his firm’s proposal via teleconference, Harris pointed out that this was the same fee ABSS paid the firm to conduct its last search, which led to Benson’s selection in March 2018.

Both firms would advertise the position nationally, set up an online application system, and would protect applicants’ confidentiality, which their representatives said would help ABSS attract the best and most qualified candidates for the next superintendent.

Both firms’ representatives also said they would survey ABSS employees and community members to determine what they’d like to see in the next superintendent. Both firms also would develop a leadership profile – based on preferred education, professional experience, and personal characteristics – and a scoring matrix that school board members could use to rank candidates, the firms’ representatives said Tuesday.

The N.C. School Boards Association is comprised largely of attorneys who are experienced in public education law; BWP & Associates is comprised largely of retired superintendents.

Headquartered in Libertyville, Illinois, BWP & Associates apparently casts a wider net for potential candidates and would give the community more say in the selection process, based on Harris’ comments to the board Tuesday.

The school boards association (NCSBA) would identify a pool of seven to 10 prospective candidates for school board members to interview.

BWP & Associates (BWP) would vet an initial pool of 10 to 12 prospective candidates to come in for informal interviews with the firm. The firm would then select the top four to six candidates who would be recommended for the school board to interview.

BWP most recently completed a superintendent search for Stafford County schools in Virginia – where Benson had previously served as superintendent prior to coming to ABSS in 2018. That process initially yielded a pool of 26 applicants from approximately 14 states, including six or seven sitting superintendents, BWP’s Harris said Tuesday.

The NCSBA most recently conducted superintendent searches for Cabarrus County schools, Chatham County schools, and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro city school system, O’Rourke said. “We’re all licensed attorneys who’ve been doing this for some time,” he noted. “We can keep you out of trouble but…we are really here so you can be confident in the decisions you’re making.”

The NCSBA typically relies on posting vacancies on its website, advertising in trade publications for national superintendents’ associations, and word of mouth to recruit applicants, said Jim O’Rourke, who is the organization’s assistant legal counsel for superintendent searches.

BWP would tap into contacts developed through Harris’ and Castner’s combined 90 years’ experience in public education, in addition to advertising in national trade publications and through state superintendents’ associations. “Because I’m an alum of Harvard, we have the opportunity to advertise on that website [at no charge],” Harris added.

At the same time, prospective candidates who live in Alamance County and/or work in the area would be strongly encouraged to apply, Harris said.


‘Superintendent shuffle’
School board vice chairman Tony Rose voiced his concerns about what generally “seems like a churn of superintendents” in searches the NCSBA has led.

BWP was hired to lead the last superintendent search for ABSS because the board wanted a strong recruitment effort “versus the churn of the school boards association – the superintendent shuffle,” Rose recalled Tuesday.

“That was my opinion [that the NCSBA’s approach] was run some ads, use our existing network, and see who bites,” Rose said, adding that the school boards association “did do a fine process” previously for ABSS. The vice chairman said that, though hiring a firm to lead the search wasn’t scheduled for a vote this week, he’d support hiring either one.
The NCSBA conducted at least two previous searches for ABSS: the one that led to hiring Lillie Cox as superintendent in 2011 and Randy Bridges in 2006.

The board had also hired the NCSBA to conduct a search several months after Cox resigned in May 2014, though that search was ultimately cut short after the board successfully negotiated with then-interim superintendent Dr. Bill Harrison to accept the permanent post in early 2015.

“We really do advertise the position nationally,” O’Rourke insisted. The NCSBA doesn’t have a pool of potential candidates to call upon when superintendents resign or retire, he said. “”We’re really trying to find people that check the boxes that your staff and community have identified; it involves some cold-calling.”

By comparison, BWP prefers to “involve the community up front, before candidates are screened,” Harris said Tuesday, though he indicated later that his firm could meet the board’s unofficial request for a “condensed” timeframe for completing the search for ABSS.

The NCSBA hasn’t had much success in meeting with community members and groups, O’Rourke said when school board member Donna Westbrooks asked whether the organization facilitates “stakeholder meetings.”

“People comment on everything,” much like they would at a public forum or school board meeting, O’Rourke explained. “We would rely on your local folks for a lot of the logistical support there,” he said.

O’Rourke instead emphasized the NCSBA’s ability to serve as conduit between candidates and school board members. For example, the search team would handle scheduling meetings; taking minutes at meetings with candidates; calling candidates; and “getting folks in and out of the building” during interviews, he said.


Premium on applicant confidentiality
Both Harris of BWP & Associates and O’Rourke of the NCSBA highlighted what they see as a need to maintain candidates’ confidentiality.

“The most important thing about confidentiality is it gets you the best candidates that are out there,” O’Rourke said Tuesday.

“If you have [the interviews] at a hotel or community college, you all may be recognizable to the community or your local press,” O’Rourke pointed out. The NCSBA’s attorneys are not as visible in the local community and therefore are able to escort candidates to and from interviews more discreetly, he said.

School board member Patsy Simpson said that, while she understands that sitting superintendents feel a need to maintain confidentiality during the application process, she doesn’t buy into that line of thinking.

“That’s stated every time,” Simpson said Tuesday. “That just puts these superintendents on some kind of pedestal. I just don’t buy that. I don’t see how that’s grounds to fire somebody [if word gets out that a superintendent is interviewing for a job somewhere else]. I don’t see how that would stand up in court. That just bothers me…that’s why they come and never stay long. I truly don’t buy into that.

“When the county’s finance people are leaving, do they say that?” Simpson continued. “Do they say, ‘Oh no – we’re about to lose the county manager, do we say anything?’ I don’t buy into that.”

Simpson also countered an earlier suggestion that it’s too complicated a process for school board members to conduct a search on their own.

“If we choose to do this without a firm, can you tell us what our challenges would be?” Rose asked O’Rourke.

‘It’s a lot of work’
“It’s a lot of work,” the NCSBA attorney said Tuesday. “It’s a lot of information floating around,” since most applications are submitted online these days. School board members would also need to designate someone to receive applications; determine who would have access to the application materials; conduct background checks and contact references; and handle other clerical duties associated with the search, O’Rourke said.

Rose and former school board member Steve Van Pelt had previously pressed their fellow board members to conduct the superintendent search in 2017. Rose later cast the lone vote against hiring BWP & Associates to conduct the search for Harrison’s successor in late June 2017.

“I’m just saying I don’t buy into that,” Simpson said Tuesday. “Criminal background checks – there are many agencies that understand the confidentiality and do those searches for you. I didn’t like the tone that we shouldn’t even consider doing the search ourselves.”

School board members will likely resume their discussion about the superintendent search at their next meeting, which is currently scheduled for Monday, December 6.
School board chairman Allison Gant was unable to attend the work session Tuesday afternoon as she was traveling to a family member’s funeral, Rose announced at the beginning of the meeting.

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