News analysis: Search for Muscogee County School District superintendent stalled

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 5, 2013 

The search for the Muscogee County School District’s next superintendent is “an ongoing process,” according to the mantra from the school board’s leadership, but that process hasn’t gone anywhere during the past month.

Some board members noted the holidays intervened; others admitted the search is at a standstill.

No board member the Ledger-Enquirer contacted this past week said it outright, but several factors indicate that the search has stalled and might start over:

• The board’s stated goal of hiring a superintendent by the end of 2012 wasn’t aggressively pursued toward the end. The board hasn’t met since Dec. 10, when it went into closed session for less than 30 minutes to discuss the four unnamed semifinalists chosen from among 22 applicants. The semifinalists were interviewed in a closed session Dec. 5.

• No further special meetings have been called to discuss the search. The next time the board is scheduled to meet is Jan. 14 at 5 p.m. for its regular work session, then Jan. 22 at 6 p.m. for its regular meeting.

• The two new board members elected to the nine-person panel July 31, Athavia “A.J.” Senior of District 3 and Shannon Heflin of District 7, haven’t been part of the search. And the board members they replaced when the calendar flipped to 2013, James Walker of District 3 and Norene Marvets of District 7, won’t have a vote in the hiring anymore.

• Board chairwoman Cathy Williams has gone from effusive to cryptic when asked about the search.

• Even the board’s search firm, McPherson & Jacobson LLC of Omaha, Neb., has changed its public availability. The previously reachable consultants haven’t returned calls from the Ledger-Enquirer in the past month.

All of which brings us back where we started a month ago: four semifinalists interviewed and no progress since.

The Ledger-Enquirer already reported the identity of one of the semifinalists: Karyle Green, the superintendent of East Allen County Schools in Indiana, which has an enrollment of about 9,500 students. Muscogee County schools have about 32,000 students enrolled.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Green declined to comment beyond reaffirming what she said Dec. 19, that she still wants the job in Muscogee County and isn’t a candidate anywhere else.

Green was a finalist this year for the superintendent position in Jefferson County, Ala. — the 35,843-student district where Lee County Superintendent Stephen Nowlin was hired — and the Harrison School District (11,400 students) in Colorado Springs, Colo., as well as an alternate finalist in Mobile County, Ala. (63,000 students).

Sticking points

No semifinalist meets all of the criteria the board gave the search firm to screen the candidates, Williams has admitted. The major shortfall is the requirement for candidates to have five years of superintendent experience in a similar-size urban school district.

That means the board must revise its criteria, settle for less or actively pursue superintendents who meet the criteria. District 6 representative Mark Cantrell sees another high bar the candidates are having trouble reaching: being compared to the past two superintendents, Susan Andrews and John Phillips Jr. (now the interim superintendent).

“Knowing we already have a strong leader who we are very familiar with, like having a strong backup quarterback, you have a luxury and aren’t in a rush to find someone better,” Cantrell said. “… Dr. Phillips, he has made a commitment to stay with us as long as we need him to stay with us until we feel comfortable with someone else.”

And the board even might decide to use a different search firm. “All of this is in play,” said District 4 representative Naomi Buckner.

“Everything is an option,” said District 1 representative Pat Hugley Green. She added, however, that calling the interviewed candidates semifinalists is a misnomer.

“The accurate thing to say is the board has started its interview process,” she said. “I don’t think the board is done interviewing.”

Going into the Dec. 5 interviews, Williams still expressed confidence that the board was on track to hire a superintendent by the end of December. In hindsight, she said, the timeline the search firm set wasn’t helpful.

“We will hire a superintendent when we have determined the best candidate,” Williams said. “To try to establish an artificial timeline, I think, is somewhat detrimental to the process. What’s more important is success at the end.”

That end looked within sight when then-superintendent Andrews announced in March her plan to retire July 31. But the board and search firm didn’t sign their contract until July 9. Meanwhile, the board was embroiled in controversy.

At its May meeting, a divided board failed to approve seven candidates Andrews nominated as principals and two other administrators. What usually are unanimous and ceremonial rubber stamps were 5-4 rejections, plus one 6-3.

As a result, Andrews retired a month earlier than planned.

Then on July 5, five days after Andrews departed, the board approved Phillips’ recommendation to hire the same principals and administrators. The votes for all the principals except one were unanimous. Board members didn’t explain their change of votes, except Hugley Green said her concerns were addressed by Phillips, not Andrews.

Board politics

Now, the balance of power on the board has shifted. With the ouster of Marvets and Walker, the bloc that blocked Andrews’ recommendations doesn’t have a majority anymore, with only three members left: Hugley Green, John Wells of District 2 and Beth Harris of District 8. Wells and Harris weren’t reached for comment this past week.

Hugley Green insists it’s unfair to call those board members a bloc.

“I can only speak for myself,” she said, “but, for me, it was about not getting my questions answered.”

She wouldn’t reveal those questions. “They were personnel issues,” she said.

Bloc or not, the opposition is weakened, but so is the chairmanship — and a new leader could ascend.

Williams, the board’s lone county-wide representative, said she wants to remain chairwoman when the board takes its annual vote on the position this month. Her support, however, appears shaky. Two cases in point:

• At the May meeting, Williams called the bloc’s action “shameful,” and after each vote, she said, “I personally apologize” to the family and friends of the candidates who were in attendance.

Publicly speaking against the opposition rankled board members.

“A lot of board members were upset because Cathy voiced her opinion right there,” Cantrell said.

• Williams requested the board allow Heflin and Senior to observe the closed sessions during the superintendent search so they would be updated when they took office in January. But the consensus of the board denied that request.

“I didn’t see a problem with it,” Buckner said.

“I would have been perfectly happy with them in the room,” Cantrell said.

“They needed to have been sworn in,” Hugley Green said.

Senior said she isn’t bothered by being left out.

“I’m not concerned,” she said. “We’ll deal with it appropriately.”

Heflin wasn’t reached for comment.

Cantrell expects board vice chairman Rob Varner of District 5 to challenge Williams for the chairmanship. Varner declined to say whether he will try to unseat the leader.

“I think Cathy has been a fine chair,” Varner said. “… The board has gone through some challenging times, and that has unfortunately spilled over into more of a negative perception as far as our chemistry, but Cathy’s dedication to the board and the school district is excellent.”

Hugley Green previously has sought the chairmanship and said she is considering it again. “But I want to check with board members first to see what they think,” she said.

Cantrell, who nominated Williams for the chairmanship the past two years, wouldn’t say how he will vote this time.

“I think Cathy has done a great job,” he said, “but I think we have other qualified people.”

Buckner favors Williams staying in the top spot.

“We need a continuum, and, for the most part, she’s done a pretty good job,” Buckner said. “We have other people who can lead, but, in my opinion, she hasn’t done anything that would make her ineligible.”

Buckner, however, acknowledged a criticism that sometimes undercuts Williams.

“Cathy is quite forward; she’s direct,” Buckner said. “I don’t have a problem with that, but it may be that it affects the board or even the public. Sometimes, she’s in your face, but I listen to the issues and kind of drown out the other stuff.

“She has an understanding of the issues, and she can articulate the issues. She is pretty fair to the board members and has the public’s interest at heart.”

Varner shrugged off the criticism of Williams.

“Any time you are in a role to speak for the board or interact with the media or any constituency or group,” he said, “then you’re bound to have some comments that maybe some people take differently than others. That’s not against Cathy at all. That just comes with the territory.”

Hugley Green laughed and said, “I suppose we all could be guilty of speaking out of turn.”

Senior declined to say whom she will support for the chairmanship, but she added, “I think 2013 will show a better and more polished school board. Better leadership may take us in a more positive direction.”

Asked whether she thinks she still has the board’s support, Williams said, “I hope I have the support of the board. … It’s always been, when it comes to leadership, a divided board. We always have had a lot of servant leaders, so you always might have some friction.”

Cantrell is optimistic the board will rally together.

“After the elections, people got focused again,” he said. “We had a lot of emotions going on there for two or three months.

“Every one of these board members are putting their hearts and souls into trying to get the best superintendent who will lead us and not just leave us in three years.”

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