School board will hire school boards assn. to conduct new supt. search, keep names secret

Alamance-Burlington school board members voted 6-1 Monday night to hire the North Carolina School Boards Association (NCSBA) to conduct the search for the next superintendent and also split 5-2 on a second motion to keep the names of the finalists for the position confidential.

School board member Ryan Bowden voted against hiring the NCSBA to conduct the search, saying he favored having a community-led group conduct the search for a successor to former superintendent Dr. Dain Butler, who resigned March 4, less than two years after he was hired.

School board member Ryan Bowden

“I feel like we are going down the same road we went down, year after year, every time we have done a superintendent search. No disrespect to the school boards association, but we have got to find a way to engage our community better than we have in the past.  Personally, I am not going to support anything that does not give our community more of a voice in the superintendent search.”

– School board member Ryan Bowden

Bowden was joined by his fellow school board member, Dr. Charles Parker, in voting against a separate motion, introduced by school board vice chairman Donna Westbrooks, to do a “closed search,” rather than an open format, in which the finalists would be required to participate in public forums so the members of the community could meet and learn a little bit about the candidates.  Both Bowden and Parker insisted that the board needs as much input from the community as possible.

“I feel like we are going down the same road we went down, year after year, every time we have done a superintendent search,” Bowden said Monday night.  “No disrespect to the school boards association, but we have got to find a way to engage our community better than we have in the past.  Personally, I am not going to support anything that does not give our community more of a voice in the superintendent search.”

However, Westbrooks’ motion to do a closed search passed 5-2; voting in favor were school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves, Westbrooks, and school board members Dan Ingle, Seneca Rogers, and Chuck Marsh.

School board vice chairman Donna Westbrooks

“Some folks might not be happy with this particular board, but they did elect us.  That’s why we’re here, is there are some people in this community who did trust us to make this decision.  It is important that sitting superintendents have that confidentiality piece; it is there to protect them.  I do not doubt one iota that this community [will] speak up, but in the long run, they trusted us to make that final decision.  For people who want to apply for this job, I do think [an open search] will cut down the quality of the people who will apply for this position.”

– School board vice chairman Donna Westbrooks

“That confidentiality piece, which is law, that’s important,” Westbrooks said prior to introducing her motion for a closed search.  “Some folks might not be happy with this particular board, but they did elect us.  That’s why we’re here, is there are some people in this community who did trust us to make this decision.  It is important that sitting superintendents have that confidentiality piece; it is there to protect them.  I do not doubt one iota that this community [will] speak up, but in the long run, they trusted us to make that final decision.  For people who want to apply for this job, I do think [an open search] will cut down the quality of the people who will apply for this position.”

School board member Dan Ingle responded, “I concur with what Donna said. When you’ve got a young superintendent, or one that’s been there for a few years that’s really good, and his board finds out he’s applying for other jobs – I don’t want to see us watering down the pool, and that’s exactly what we’d be doing.”

School board member Seneca Rogers agreed, saying, “I don’t want anything to be a barrier to that, but I do want our community to stay heavily engaged in what this is going to look like for us.”

“All of the searches we’ve done recently were closed,” said NCSBA attorney for superintendent searches Sam Thorp, who presented the contract for the search to the board Monday night.  “As I’m sure you already know, applicants are entitled to confidentiality under North Carolina law.  The only way to do that [get potential finalists to agree to appear at public forums] would be to get them to sign a waiver.  Not only will it weaken your pool substantially, but it can also leave you with no pool.”

The vast majority of potential applicants for the superintendent’s job – particularly sitting superintendents – won’t want to risk alienating themselves with their current boards by agreeing to appear at public forums and have it come out that they’re job hunting, Thorp said Monday night.

 

NCSBA attorney: Board will get better feedback in secret meetings without the press to cover them

Instead, Thorp suggested that the board would elicit better feedback by hosting informal gatherings with small groups of community members.  “We’ve done every different kind of forum,” he said.  “There’s a whole host of people that don’t want to come to [an official public meeting].  What we’ve found is the smaller, informal meetings that don’t involve the press…you get a much better conversation than you would in a setting like this.”

For his part, Marsh had strongly suggested Monday night that the board solicit input from interim superintendent Dr. Bill Harrison, given his 40-plus years of experience and myriad connections in North Carolina public education.

But both Thorp and the school board’s attorney, Adam Mitchell of the Tharrington Smith law firm in Raleigh, reiterated that the same state law that provides confidentiality for applicants also prohibits school board members from sharing any applicants’ names or application materials with Harrison.

“Only the board and board attorney and the board’s hired consultant are legally allowed to look at the applicants and applicant materials,” Thorp warned.

Asked for his thoughts about that aspect of the search, Mitchell responded, “I’m going to refer back to the official legal parameters about who’s allowed to see the application materials.”

Under the timeline developed by the NCSBA and presented Monday night, the deadline to apply for the superintendent’s job is May 17; an announcement is tentatively scheduled for July 15, and he/or she would start work by August 15.

Harrison’s contract as interim superintendent for ABSS runs through September 18.

In an earlier interview with The Alamance News, Harrison insisted that he’s unwilling to entertain any possible extension of his employment with ABSS, as he had with his previous tenure in ABSS.  Harrison was originally hired as the interim superintendent in July 2014, following the resignation of then-superintendent Dr. Lillie Cox, and subsequently agreed, in February 2015, to serve as the permanent superintendent until May 2018.

 

Dissention over whether to pay to advertise superintendent vacancy

Thorp also assured school board members Monday night that ABSS wouldn’t have to pay the invoice for the search until after the 2024-25 fiscal year begins.  The flat fee for the search is $21,500, based on documents that the NCSBA attorney presented Monday night.  The NCSBA fee doesn’t include another charge, of up to $4,500, for “any additional board-approved expenses,” such as paid advertisements with professional organizations such as the American Association of School Administrators, which Thorp said charges $559 to run an ad for 30 days.

“We’re broke,” Bowden pointed out, before suggesting that Thorp begin the search by advertising the vacancy with organizations such as the NCSBA that don’t charge an extra fee.  School board members agreed by consensus to have Thorp post the vacancy, starting Tuesday, with organizations that don’t charge for advertising.

 

Board previously split 5-2 in voting to hire Butler in 2022

The school board – which consisted of some current members, as well as three now-former board members – had split in voting to hire Butler as the superintendent in May 2022.  The vote was 5-2, with then-board members Allison Gant and Tony Rose voting against hiring Butler.  Voting in favor were: Bowden, Ellington-Graves, and Westbrooks, as well as then-board members Wayne Beam and Patsy Simpson.

Gant and Rose later told The Alamance News that they had voted against hiring Butler because they felt he was unprepared to lead a school system as large as ABSS, which at the time had 36 schools and nearly 23,000 students.

Butler began his career in education with ABSS in 1999 as a teacher at Broadview Middle School before working his way up the administrative ladder.  In 2016, he resigned as the director of school administration for ABSS to serve as the superintendent of the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District, a school system in Halifax County with seven schools and approximately 2,500 students.

In September 2021, Butler resigned as superintendent of the Roanoke Rapids school system and received $152,680.77 in severance, the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald reported at the time.  He was employed with Guilford County schools, as the senior director for principal pipeline development, immediately prior to being hired as the superintendent of ABSS in May 2022.

 

No action on county budget request

In other business, school board members took no action Monday night to finalize a county budget request for 2024-25, though they had been tentatively scheduled to do so.

“You guys, we need your feedback,” Harrison urged the board, while also acknowledging that many ABSS employees feel like they’re in limbo, given warnings about possible job cuts that then-superintendent Dr. Dain Butler had issued earlier this year.   “We’ve got to make some serious cuts; we need to hear from you.  We are cognizant, to the best we can be, of what they [staff and some students] are going through.”