UPDATE: After three-hour candidate interview, school board silent about session

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comApril 28, 2013 

ATLANTA — After a nearly three-hour closed session to interview an undisclosed superintendent candidate Sunday afternoon, the Muscogee County School Board was upbeat but more eager to return to Columbus than discuss what transpired.

No action was taken before the board adjourned in the reception area of search consultant Glenn Brock’s law firm — Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarbourgh — on the 17th floor of the midtown Atlanta office building at 201 17th St.

“This is an ongoing process as we continue our superintendent search,” said board vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1, who presided in the absence of chairman Rob Varner of District 5.

Green said the interview “went well” but didn’t disclose details. The board will discuss the candidate and the search’s next step in closed session during Wednesday’s 5 p.m. called meeting back in Columbus, where the administration is expected to propose closing Edgewood Elementary School and repurpose or declare as surplus other facilities.

Asked whether the board will interview more candidates, Green said, “It’s possible. We have not concluded anything. It’s been a great process so far, and we’re just going to try to stay focused on finding the absolutely best candidate for the district.”

Asked what she can disclose about the candidate, Green said, “Actually, nothing at all. We’re going to discuss it as a group. As soon as we get to a point where we’re ready to share any information with the community, you know we always do that and try to keep everybody updated on our process, which has been great so far.”

By noon Sunday, the scheduled time for the meeting, only Brock and a Ledger-Enquirer reporter were in the designated conference room. About five minutes later, eight of the nine board members and board attorney Greg Ellington arrived. Board members said Varner wasn’t able to attend.

Board members didn’t bother to enter the conference room. They stood in the reception area, with a grand view of the Atlanta skyline, as Green called the meeting to order. Then they unanimously voted to go into closed session for a personnel matter.

The matter’s topic was clear: to interview a superintendent candidate. That candidate’s identity is unclear, although the Ledger-Enquirer reported Friday online and in Saturday’s print edition the interviewed candidate isn’t Phenix City native Eugene White, who retired as Indianapolis Public Schools superintendent when his bought-out contract expired April 5. White, the 2002 and 2009 Indiana Superintendent of the Year, is the lone current applicant the L-E has identified.

About an hour after the board went into closed session, Brock emerged to give the board members time to interview the candidate alone. He returned to the interview later.

Brock, who has been leading superintendent searches for about 20 years, was the consultant during the Muscogee County board’s past two searches. He doesn’t encourage boards to have prescribed questions.

“I have some guidelines they can choose to use or not use,” he said. “But just like in an interview you would do, you have to be prepared to go where the interview takes you.”

He also doesn’t ask boards to score the interviews on a certain rubric.

“It’s really up to each board member to determine how they evaluate,” he said. “In my experience, the most important factor generally is how well the board and superintendent can work together. If you sit across the room from somebody, you can get the sense that, ‘They are open with me. I can trust them. I like their approach. I think they would be good for the community — all those things.’ That’s the most important thing.”

Brock has been impressed with the board’s approach.

“It can be a tough situation because they take this very seriously,” he said. “The stakes are high. The kids’ future somewhat depends on this, so it can be stressful.”

Brock again declined to reveal the number of applicants, although board member Mark Cantrell of District 6 said Wednesday that the board had “at least five” applications on the table during Monday night’s closed session but looked at only two of them.

“Our success has come from recruiting candidates,” Brock said. “The best candidates might not be looking for a job, so part of our role is to try to identify the needs and then try to find the candidate that fits that.”

The board’s main criteria for candidates has been at least five years of experience as superintendent in a similar-sized district. The board also wants a superintendent who has worked in a diverse community, Brock said.

It’s been 13 months since former Harris County superintendent Susan Andrews announced her pending retirement from the Muscogee County School District in March 2012. Her predecessor, John Phillips, who led the district from 2003-2008, has been interim superintendent since Andrews finished her three years in Muscogee County last summer. In the original search, led by McPherson & Jacobson of Omaha, Neb., the Ledger-Enquirer identified three of the 22 applicants. None met all of the criteria, board members have said.

Karyle Green, the superintendent of East Allen County Schools in Indiana, was among the four semifinalists the Muscogee County board interviewed in closed session Dec. 5 before that search was aborted. The other two identified candidates have local connections but weren’t interviewed: Phenix City Schools superintendent Larry DiChiara and former Shaw High School principal Jim Arnold, now the superintendent of Pelham (Ga.) City Schools.

Green, DiChiara and Arnold didn’t reapply after the board fired McPherson & Jacobson and hired Brock in January.

Andrews was the first female superintendent in the school district’s history. White wants to be the first black one. He is the 2007 National Association of Black School Educators Superintendent of the Year.

Varner, who took over the chairmanship from at-large member Cathy Williams in January, said in a news release Friday that “no action to hire a superintendent will be made until we announce the finalist(s) to the public and give you the opportunity to meet him or her. By law, we must wait at least 14 calendar days after the release of the finalist(s) name(s) before we vote on any appointment. In accordance with the law, we will release the names of up to three finalists.

“If, after interviews, we determine that no candidate meets our expectations, we will instruct our consultant to keep looking. As we have said before, we want to get the best candidate possible, even if it takes longer than first anticipated.”

The board conducted the interview in Atlanta instead of Columbus because of expense and convenience, Brock said Friday.

“The candidate would have to come in and drive a couple hours both ways,” he said, “and I would have to, too, and I’m getting paid by the hour.”

According to his contract, the board pays Brock $300 per hour with a cap of $25,000.

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