Fayette superintendent search will be open, not replicate past mistakes, board chair said

Fayette County School Board Chairman John Price says the board intends to conduct an open and transparent superintendent search, with community involvement, while avoiding the kind of glitches that plagued some previous searches.

Past problems included rapid turnover, with two superintendents and two interims in the five years before Stu Silberman was hired; superintendent search firms that didn't do their homework, and conflicts between openness and confidentiality.

The board, now gearing up its search to replace Silberman, is reviewing some earlier searches, hoping to use things that worked well.

For example, Price said the district is compiling a list of the focus groups that were used successfully in the past to help identify qualities the community valued in a new superintendent. The board might use focus groups or similar vehicles to ensure public input this time, he said, adding that some groups already have expressed an interest in being involved.

Also being gathered is a list of search firms the district has used. Firms that performed poorly could be avoided this time.

"We'd like the process to be as smooth as possible and as transparent as possible," Price said. "It's very important that the community be involved because the community has to have a relationship with the superintendent and the superintendent has to have a relationship with the community. If it's a good relationship, we can move forward."

Silberman, 59, announced he will retire effective Sept. 1 after 37 years in education and almost seven years as Fayette superintendent. His last work day will be in July, which should allow ample time to name a successor. Superintendent searches typically take three to four months.

Even so, Fayette board members will have many questions to answer in the coming weeks. What sort of superintendent do they want? Is it important to have someone already familiar with Kentucky education issues, such as the sweeping school reforms coming next fall, or should the board hire an outsider who might bring new perspectives?

How much is the district willing to pay for the person it wants? Silberman makes a little more than $244,000 a year.

Board members have said they'll look for someone who would be committed to closing achievement gaps for all students.

"We need to get absolutely the best person we can," Price said. "The district is large and attractive enough that I think we'll have candidates from across the country, as we have in the past."

A few in-state names have been mentioned in education circles as possible candidates, including Jessamine County Superintendent Lu Young and Daviess County Superintendent Tom Shelton, whom Silberman mentored when he was Daviess superintendent before coming to Lexington.

Fayette and Jefferson County — Kentucky's two largest school districts — are in the market for new superintendents, although education officials say the simultaneous searches shouldn't interfere with each other. The Jefferson County Board of Education was expected to vote Monday night on a search firm to help recruit a successor for departing Superintendent Sheldon Berman. The board voted in November not to renew Berman's contract, which ends June 30.

The Fayette County board plans to invite proposals from search firms, but members haven't decided whether they'll actually hire one. Meanwhile, the board has directed district staffers to prepare for the online election of a superintendent screening committee, which is required by law and must have representation from teachers, principals, parents, classified employees and the school board itself. Nomination forms should go out this week, district officials say, with online voting tentatively set for next week. The board hopes to approve the screening panel at its Feb. 28 meeting.

The committee will review superintendent applicants, then submit a list of recommended names to the board, which might follow the recommendations.

Fayette's previous superintendent search problems began in 1999, when the school board told then-Superintendent Peter Flynn to quit or be fired. He was followed in rapid succession by Robin Fankhauser, Duane Tennant, Kenneth James and Marlene Helm before Silberman arrived in May 2004. Tennant and Helm were interim superintendents. James' tenure lasted just eight months; he quit to take a different job.

The revolving door at one point prompted the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators to warn that Fayette County risked becoming a district that top superintendent candidates avoid.

There were other issues. The board fired one search firm in 2000 after learning it recommended two finalists who left previous posts amid controversy. Another firm being considered two years later was found to have a history of problems in other communities.

Then there were the circuslike interviews the school board held with superintendent finalists in 2003 while trying to keep their names secret. Some candidates withheld their names from reporters; one hid his face under a collapsed umbrella to avoid being photographed.

No current school board member was involved in those searches. But Mary Wright, the district's chief operating officer, noted the past problems during the board's first superintendent search discussion on Feb. 3, suggesting planning could help avoid such difficulties.

Board members have said that while they understand many superintendent applicants might want to remain anonymous, they plan to make finalists available to meet the public before a decision on the next superintendent is made.

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