Editorial: Even pre-screened leader candidates need critical eye
There are several cautionary messages that emerge from the short, bumpy tenure of former Des Plaines school superintendent Floyd Williams Jr., but perhaps the most surprising is that apparently a school district would be wise to thoroughly vet and critically question the search firm they hire before they seriously consider the candidates it produces.
In 2015, the Des Plaines Elementary District 62 school board paid a highly regarded search firm $24,750 to help it find and ultimately hire Dr. Williams, who resigned a year and half into the job under allegations he sexually harassed five female district employees.
In the course of vetting Williams, the search firm missed that he had resigned from his previous job under allegations he had nude images of women on his work computer, took photos of a staff member that made her uncomfortable, made inappropriate comments to his assistant and directed her to perform personal tasks for him and his family.
This information was not hard to find -- the Daily Herald obtained it in a routine request through Wisconsin's Open Records law and published it within days of Williams starting his Des Plaines job in July 2016.
But as reporters Christopher Placek and Chacour Koop recounted in last Sunday's Daily Herald, the particular firm that did the District 62 search, based in Schaumburg, brought candidates with problems to other school districts, too. To be fair, we don't know how well their general performance stacks up against other firms that do the same kinds of searches. There's no guarantee another firm wouldn't also have missed the red flags about Williams. And, a company officer says that 85 percent of the superintendents they find remain in their jobs for at least five years.
But, this was a big miss. And it did a lot of damage. It's not just the $24,750 that District 62 paid the search firm and the $127,000 it gave Williams to leave.
The money matters, of course, but there are five women who work in District 62 who matter even more. And then there's the school board, men and women who are now in an awkward spot.
Search firms have to do better, but as this episode makes clear, the onus is on school boards, too. In interviewing firms, board members should talk to other clients to assess the results, and in working with a chosen firm, they should be aggressive about asking for details when something doesn't add up. They should have a clear idea of what was considered "due diligence" in vetting candidates.
Wisely, the District 62 board is not rushing to replace Williams. A trusted interim superintendent is in charge through the 2018-19 school year, as the board ponders whether to use the same search firm (which will do the search for free, minus expenses), hire another firm or skip a search firm altogether.
Superintendents set the tone for a school district, and it cannot be overstated how important these positions are. Let all school districts and public governing bodies learn from this.