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Superintendent - Search Process Under Fire
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A special board meeting to decide how to proceed with the selection of a Superintendent for the Oakdale Joint Unified School District brought out about 50 concerned teachers, parents, and community members on Monday, Oct. 18, filling the OJUSD Technology and Staff Development Center.

On the agenda were two items. One was how the school trustees would go about the selection process of replacing Fred Rich, who is retiring at the end of this school year in 2011, and whether or not to conduct a search. The other was the consideration of using a consultant to do the Superintendent search.

Cheers and a few jeers erupted from the attendees, some of whom also asked pointed questions, as various speakers and board members shared their opinions on the matter.

In the end, the trustees voted 4-1 to approve conducting a search, with trustee Diane Gilbert casting the dissenting vote. The next item saw the board split 3-2 to approve the use of executive search consultant and former district superintendent Dr. Wendell Chun in the process at a cost of $6,000 to the district, with trustees Gilbert and Mike House casting the “no” votes.

Oakdale Teachers Association President Linda Kraus was the first to speak from the audience, reiterating her prior request at the last regular board meeting to reduce at the top levels through attrition, as the district has done with other positions throughout the district. She asked why the board would want to spend money on a consultant and a search when there are qualified candidates in the district.

“To say I am greatly disappointed is an understatement,” Kraus said, adding that it’s time to reduce at the district office level.

Applause from much of the room followed her statement.

Other teachers also took to the podium, commenting that the board didn’t need to go outside the school district to fill the Superintendent position.

“As parents, we want the very best Superintendent that may be available,” said community member Mitch Gagos at the podium.

He added that whether that person be hired from within or outside the district, some cost would be a reasonable investment, and would serve all employees and students. He said he supports and respects the teachers but also felt a search would be a reasonable expense. His statements garnered some minor applause.

More teachers spoke, including Laurie Doerksen who said that cuts always seem to happen close to the classroom and felt attrition was best. She added that the team of administrators in place at the district office would be a good choice and that she preferred the money be spent closer to the classroom.

Trustee Bill Dyer started with board statements recalling tough times in the district “way back” with leadership and wanted to see the district’s excellent leadership continue and wanted to see what talent is available both in and outside the district. He later said that the district had a past history of buying out a superintendent and another when it was a high school district.

Trustee Rick Jones said he didn’t see the matter as a budget issue because the district needs a superintendent. That statement garnered some negative chatter from some members of the audience. He said he doesn’t believe in co-coaches or co-CEOs because they don’t work. He added that there needs to be a transparent, objective process and doesn’t see this as a time to negotiate.

Trustee House said the district needs somebody in charge and that the board only hires and fires one person – the superintendent. He added that there are more and less costly ways to do a search and that they need to do a diligent search and hire the best possible candidate, whether that person be within the district or not. He made reference to when the district became unified and how he got “shouted down” in a board meeting to hire within and it probably wasn’t the best choice.

Trustee Gilbert told the crowd that Superintendent Rich had recommended to the board that they reduce through attrition and select any one of the three sitting assistant superintendents – Tim Hern, Barbara Shook, or Marc Malone – to fill the position and spread the responsibilities, that the job currently done by the four could be done by the three.

“I don’t see how we can look you all in the face and not take cuts at the district office,” Gilbert said.

The crowd erupted in loud applause following her statement.

Trustee Mike Tozzi talked about how the board found prior Superintendent Chun, through a search process. Tozzi said that the decisions the board has made over time have never been just budget driven and then he talked about various programs and jobs the district has held onto when they could’ve saved large amounts of money by eliminating them, but chose not to.

He added that superintendent searches for a district the size of Oakdale are usually more than $20,000 and that Chun’s firm is offering to do it at a deeply discounted rate. He said the district needs to see what’s out there because the superintendent will lead the district through difficult times and he also couldn’t see combining jobs at that level because they’re separately important.

Gilbert asked for clarification on the cost of Chun doing a search and asked if there were other options and the costs involved with those.

Superintendent Rich said that the board’s options are to appoint a superintendent, hire a consultant, conduct the search themselves, use the district’s Human Resources department, or go through the county Office of Education.

Chun answered questions about the process from the board and the audience. He said that Patterson school district is a similar size district to Oakdale and recently hired a private firm for $22,000 to find a superintendent. Fees are based on the district’s Average Daily Attendance (ADA) and that all proposals to Patterson were over $20,000. He said that some county offices of education and HR departments do searches but there are downsides to those options.

At one point during this discussion, OTA President Kraus suggested that the board promote from within and reassign job duties. She also commented to the board that from the audience’s perspective, it seemed like the decision had already been made by the board.

Trustee Tozzi said he was offended by Kraus’ statement and that no one had been pre-chosen. There was then a brief back-and-forth between the two. Trustee House then spoke up.

“Don’t get upset at us yet,” House said to Kraus and the rest of the audience. “You don’t know what we’re going to do…We haven’t made our decision yet… Please don’t jump to conclusions.”

Chun spoke at the podium, giving a presentation about why the district should hire a consultant to do the search. He also said that using the county’s methods or by having potential in-house candidates through the district office conduct a search would result in not having the best candidates presented. He noted that it’s difficult to get top qualified, successful people to apply.

“In this day and age, many people aren’t willing to move. Especially sitting, successful superintendents,” Chun said.

He offered the district a 70 percent discount on conducting a search because of his ties here. He said that a county office of education-conducted search would likely cost the district more than he would charge, mentioning figures around $12,000 and $15,000 or more. Assistant Superintendent Hern said that to do the search in-house, there would be costs associated with staff time and various financial and background checks, but wasn’t sure of total costs.

Chun said that he’s been doing executive searches since his retirement and has placed over 25 superintendents in searches in California with a 92 percent success record. He said there are many pluses for hiring in-house, but those candidates are viewed through a different lens and that the superintendent’s job is drastically different than that of an assistant superintendent. Also, the depth and breadth of a candidate’s experience is important. As well, he said, that person must be the right match for the district.

Chun stated that the board will likely offer a candidate a three-year contract totaling almost $500,000 over the life of that contract. He added that buyout clauses are usually 18 months’ salary, so it’s a cost of $160,000-$200,000 to the district if a mistake is made in hiring.

“In my mind, $6,000 is a small, very small, insurance policy to make sure the process is open, fair,” Chun said.

He also said that he could do a state or national search and that top superintendent candidates are not likely looking for jobs and if they decide to do so, they want confidentiality. He said they must be personally approached and recruited. Chun’s firm would also seek input from the community about the ideal candidate, perform comprehensive background checks and would “vet” all candidates. He will also provide similar salary analysis, assist in negotiating the contract, and assist in the transition. He said the process would take approximately three months and would start in January.