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updated: 7/2/2012 2:20 PM

Why school districts keep superintendent searches secret

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  • New Glenbard District 87 Superintendent David Larson, center, was officially hired by the school board in March, at the conclusion of a seven-month closed-door search. Larson and his wife, Shelayne, appeared at a public meet-and-greet with school board President Rich Heim, right, a month later.

       New Glenbard District 87 Superintendent David Larson, center, was officially hired by the school board in March, at the conclusion of a seven-month closed-door search. Larson and his wife, Shelayne, appeared at a public meet-and-greet with school board President Rich Heim, right, a month later.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Then-Naperville District 203 Superintendent Mark Mitrovich was introduced to the public after his hiring was approved by the school board on Feb. 2, 2009. But a day later, a commenter on a newspaper website brought to light that Mitrovich's doctorate came from an unaccredited university -- resulting in an embarrassing episode for the school district and the search firm it employed to find a new superintendent.

      Then-Naperville District 203 Superintendent Mark Mitrovich was introduced to the public after his hiring was approved by the school board on Feb. 2, 2009. But a day later, a commenter on a newspaper website brought to light that Mitrovich's doctorate came from an unaccredited university -- resulting in an embarrassing episode for the school district and the search firm it employed to find a new superintendent.
    Daily Herald File Photo, 2009

  • Mark Mitrovich

      Mark Mitrovich

  • Mike Meissen

      Mike Meissen

  • An associate with Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates conducts a forum with residents of Naperville District 203 in 2002 during its search for a new superintendent. Many school districts employ search firms to conduct focus group sessions with community members to collect feedback on what characteristics they would like to see in a new superintendent -- but don't have public forums with the job finalists themselves.

      An associate with Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates conducts a forum with residents of Naperville District 203 in 2002 during its search for a new superintendent. Many school districts employ search firms to conduct focus group sessions with community members to collect feedback on what characteristics they would like to see in a new superintendent -- but don't have public forums with the job finalists themselves.
    Daily Herald File Photo, 2002

 
 

On a single March night in DuPage County, one superintendent arrived -- and another announced his departure -- in a cloud of secrecy at two of the state's largest school districts.


When the dust settled, residents and taxpayers in both Glenbard High School District 87 and Naperville Unit District 203 were left scratching their heads about what exactly had happened and why. And, in what has become accepted fashion in many Illinois school districts, neither their elected representatives nor their appointed administrators seemed to feel any obligation to tell them.

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The two districts provide prime examples of the secrecy surrounding the comings and goings of many top school administrators who oversee the education of thousands of children and millions of dollars in local tax money.

Advocates for transparency in government say the selection of school superintendents should be handled as openly as possible, giving the community a chance to provide input in the selection process and an opportunity to meet and vet the finalists before the school board makes its final decision.

Many school officials, though, argue such so-called "sunshine" requirements ultimately would damage their ability to recruit and perhaps keep the best qualified people.

Glenbard District 87

On March 19, school board President Rich Heim read from a prepared statement: After a seven-month closed-door search, the Glenbard school board had made its pick: David Larson. Heim read aloud a brief biography of the new superintendent to the 10 or so audience members who gathered in the school's cafeteria.

"We are very excited to have Dr. David Larson joining Glenbard District 87," Heim said. "He brings with him a diverse background and solid experience that will help him to address the challenges we face as a district in the coming years."

Just five minutes after Larson's name was publicly announced for the first time, the school board -- with nary an additional word -- voted 7-0 to put Larson in charge of the state's third-largest high school district.

Heim said the board used and valued the public's feedback during the course of the search process. But in reality, the only opportunity average residents had to be heard was to fill out a survey on the district's website about what characteristics they desired in a superintendent. A hand-picked focus group of about a dozen community members representing each Glenbard school got to interview Larson and two other finalists before the board eventually selected Larson during a closed session meeting March 3.

Most residents -- the people who will pay the superintendent's salary and send their children to the schools for which he's responsible -- weren't privy to the discussions that led to the selection of Glenbard's chief executive, who, starting today, will be responsible for overseeing the district's $131 million budget and managing four high schools with 9,000 students and 928 employees.

Naperville Dist. 203

Also on March 19, Naperville Unit District 203 Superintendent Mark Mitrovich was announcing his resignation effective June 30, citing personal reasons.

When he was hired three years earlier, the process was much like Glenbard's and that of other school districts in Illinois -- an executive search firm was hired, a slate of candidates was presented and interviews were conducted, and then the school board made its selection. And, as is usual in many Illinois districts, parents and taxpayers were largely in the dark about who the district was talking to and why it chose the person it did.

Shortly after Mitrovich was hired, an online commenter on a newspaper website brought to light revelations that the new superintendent's doctorate in education administration came from an unaccredited university. It was something the search firm, Rosemont-based Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, didn't discover until days before the District 203 board hired Mitrovich, and the consultants apparently never informed the school board.

Board members eventually withheld some of the search firm's payment but nevertheless decided to retain Mitrovich after reviewing his dissertation.

What resulted was an embarrassing episode for the district and a sour start for Mitrovich. His successes and failures ebbed and flowed over his three-year tenure in District 203: The board awarded him a performance-based pay increase after two years, but then grew disenchanted, at least partially because of problems that developed when he tried to implement school boundary changes.

Less than three years after he was hired, Mitrovich announced he was stepping down and neither the board members who hired him nor the departing superintendent would say exactly why.

The board appointed Dan Bridges, the district's former assistant superintendent for secondary education, as interim superintendent. He starts his new position today.

The district, likely with the help of a search firm, will conduct a search for Mitrovich's permanent replacement this coming school year.

The search debate

Secrecy in the search process for the public official responsible for supervising the education of children -- and handling the largest portion of residents' property tax bills -- is common throughout Illinois, where open meetings laws don't require the process to take place in public view.

That confidentiality is needed, supporters say, because it makes possible the recruitment of larger pools of candidates. The argument goes like this: Superintendent candidates won't be afraid to apply for a job with the assurance their current employer won't read about it in a newspaper or on the Internet.

But others say public vetting of candidates -- complete with meet-and-greets and question-and-answer sessions -- could prevent situations like the one that arose with Mitrovich over his degree.

Transparency advocates argue it's only fair to allow the public inside the process -- especially since any hiring ultimately involves their children and their money.

So-called "sunshine states" require school boards to conduct their searches in the open. That includes releasing a list of finalists for the job.

"It's a pain in the neck from a board member point of view; we might like to do (searches) in closed session. But it's in the community members' best interest to do it in public," said Susan Hill, president of the Burlington Public Schools board in Michigan -- the district from whence Glenbard's new superintendent is coming. "The taxpayers are the CEO."

States such as Florida -- considered to be the model for transparency by open government advocates -- require school boards to have discussions about superintendent searches in open session. And the resumes of anyone who has applied for a superintendent's job are almost always public records.

"What we would say in Florida is, 'No guts.' Everything you're going to be doing (under Florida law) is going to be in the open. If you don't want to do that, stay away," said Jon Kaney, general counsel to the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit open government group in Florida.

In Illinois, searches are done in closed sessions, which are allowed to discuss "the appointment, employment, compensation, discipline, performance or dismissal of specific employees of the public body."

However, that doesn't preclude a school board from choosing to conduct an open search.

Former Glenbard Superintendent Mike Meissen, after announcing his intention in August to step down at the end of the school year, applied for at least four superintendent positions, as reported by the Daily Herald and other newspapers, after those school districts announced the names of its finalists. Meissen was being considered by districts in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota -- and Moline, Ill.

He was one of five finalists in Moline District 40, where each participated in public forums and lunches with students as part of a daylong tour of the district, according to school board President Connie McElyea.

"Very few districts do it like what we did," she said. "We did it because of the fact we wanted it to be as transparent as we could. We felt we needed the public's and (district) staff's buy-in for who we select."

No more than 20 people applied for the position -- an issue of concern, McElyea said. The district's search firm, however, said it was a good selection pool for a district the size of Moline's.

The majority of school boards in Illinois take the advice of those who run school administrator search firms -- often former superintendents themselves -- who say confidential searches provide a deeper candidate base.

"If every time you apply for a job it's in the newspaper, that's going to limit you," said Linda Hanson, president of Highland Park-based School Exec Connect, the superintendent search firm that coordinated Glenbard's hunt. "I want the deepest candidate pool. People don't want to risk public exposure.

"People have a right to privacy in their own personal lives. I'm passionate about finding good leaders. In Illinois, I think we've been so successful because we've been able to entice so many great candidates."

She doubts many top candidates -- such as Glenbard's Larson -- would have applied had Illinois had more sunshine laws.

But such concerns didn't deter Glenbard's Meissen and Naperville's Mitrovich from applying for jobs this year in states where candidates' names are made public. The Eau Claire, Wis., school district, in fact, announced Friday that Mitrovich was one of two finalists for its superintendent post.

Those in charge of search firms maintain they present both the pros and cons of confidential searches to school board members, who ultimately are tasked with deciding how they want to conduct their search.

"The board has the responsibility to say, 'How can we get the best superintendent for the school system and the kids in the school system?'" said Alan Leis, senior vice president at Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, and the superintendent Mitrovich replaced in Naperville. "Elected boards have to make that call."

Those officials, most of whom had to go through a public vetting to get elected, almost always fall on the side of confidentiality.

"These people are applying and they lose their anonymity if they want to keep their current job," said Tim Shanahan, board president of Hawthorn District 73 in Vernon Hills, which received applications from 67 candidates for a superintendent job last year. "You give them the ability to protect their own interests."

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