Muscogee County superintendent search fallout: Board expects to pay fired search firm

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 15, 2013 

Attorney for the Muscogee County School Board District Jorge Vega and interim Superindenent John Phillips walk into executive session Monday afternoon during a school board meeting,

JOE PAULL — jpaull@ledger-enquirer.com

Tuesday brought a flurry of activity in the Muscogee County School Board's superintendent search.

When asked about the decision to change firms, the chief executive officer of the fired search firm said a fully qualified candidate was interviewed despite the board's contention to the contrary. His firm has conducted nearly 500 searches, he said, and this is the first one that failed.

Meanwhile, one of the board's attorneys said the firm "probably" will be paid in full even though it didn't fully complete the search.

Also, the day after a called meeting in which the board met in closed session before voting to switch superintendent search firms, a Georgia Press Association attorney said the board broke the state's open meetings law. The board's leadership insists the law was followed. Read more about this story here.

Final payment

The district already has paid McPherson & Jacobson $13,515. Board documents show that money was paid through two invoices: $12,950 Oct. 22 for half of the contracted fee and $565 for advertising expenses. The other half of the $25,900 fee was supposed to be due upon the completion of the search.

Jacobson said his firm will seek that final payment. Asked if the board will pay it, Vega said, "I would imagine probably so."

The contract with Brock and Clay, which the Ledger-Enquirer obtained Tuesday, is based on a rate of $300 per hour, with a maximum amount not to exceed a total of $25,000.

Vega urged the public to be patient during the search for the right person to lead the school district.

"The board gets attacked so much, but the board is doing a good job," Vega said. "This is the most important thing they do, and they need the community's support."

Another dispute

Tom Jacobson of McPherson & Jacobson disputed Tuesday the board's repeated contention that none of the 22 applicants met the following criteria that was listed for candidates:

• Must have "a minimum of five years documented, successful experience as a superintendent in a similar urban school district, and one who has progressed through the ranks of the education profession."

• Must have "a strong background in school finance and be willing to work with the board and all stakeholders to maintain sound fiscal practices, and identify funding sources for special programs and projects."

• Must have demonstrated "ability as a curriculum leader who understands 'cutting-edge theory and best practices' related to school achievement including special education. Must be able to share his/her vision and elicit support from all stakeholders toward the actualization of the vision."

• Must have "integrity" and "values" and must "represent the district in a positive manner. "This strategic-thinker will formulate goals, implement an action plan, and provide continuity in leadership."

• Must "possess excellent communication skills and be able to build a favorable working relationship with all stakeholders to include the employees, the students, the community, and the board."

The major shortfall about the candidates board members have mentioned is their lack of the five years of superintendent experience in a district similar to Muscogee County's 32,000-student system.

Jacobson, however, insists one of the four candidates the board interviewed has all of the qualifications. In fact, he said, that candidate has a combined eight years of such experience, first in a 80,000-student district and now in a 50,000-student district.

Jacobson said he doesn't know why board members would say no candidate met the criteria.

Asked about the discrepancy Tuesday, Williams said, "I'm not going to respond to specifics of any of the interviews. They occurred in executive session. We were following a process that the search firm made for us. At the end of that process, we did not have a superintendent we could name."

Jacobson noted that this was the first search out of nearly 500 in his firm's 22 years that didn't end with a hiring.

"I don't want to speak disparagingly of the board in any manner," he said. "I respect board members. They do a tough job."

He had only one criticism of the board: "I think some of the splits on the board caused some contention. I wasn't privy to the deliberation, so I can't really speak to that, but they couldn't get five votes."

Jacobson, however, emphasized that perceived disunity isn't unusual.

"I've worked with boards I believe that were less functional than this one," he said. "This board was good, open with their opinions and frank. … I think some of the board members thought we had good candidates, and some of them didn't think any of them were good."

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