Suburban firm has history of mishandled searches for school superintendents

A suburban firm paid to find superintendents for public school districts nationwide has mishandled several high-profile searches in recent years, including its failure to learn that a Des Plaines schools chief who resigned amid sexual harassment allegations in November faced similar accusations at his previous job.

Schaumburg-based Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates — one of the country's largest educational executive search firms — brought school boards candidates despite questionable pasts not discovered until ink dried on employment contracts, according to a Daily Herald review of the firm's searches.

The controversial superintendent hires have involved local districts in Des Plaines, Naperville and Highland Park, as well as school systems in the states of Minnesota, Michigan, Tennessee and Texas.

Hiring a superintendent — the administrator who oversees day-to-day operations of schools — is a school board's most important job. Picking a district's chief executive has consequences for students, educators and taxpayers, who in some of these instances funded the searches, then foot the bill for costly separation agreements when the hires didn't work out.

Yet despite the ramifications, the searches can be shrouded in secrecy, with few or no public records demonstrating what school board members knew about a hire or an accounting of search firms' work.

Unknown allegations

When Des Plaines Elementary District 62 hired Floyd Williams Jr. as superintendent after an HYA search, he was praised by school board President Stephanie Duckmann as “a champion of a positive professional climate of mutual trust and respect among faculty, staff and administrators.”

What Duckmann says board members didn't know at the time are the specific allegations of misconduct Williams faced in the Kenosha (Wisconsin) Unified School District that led to his resignation there just months earlier.

Williams stepped down from that assistant superintendent post in November 2015 after being accused of having nude images of women on his work computer, taking photos of a staff member that made her feel uncomfortable, making inappropriate comments to his assistant and directing her to perform personal tasks for him and his family.

The Daily Herald used public records to reveal the allegations in July 2016, days after Williams started his new $198,000-a-year job in Des Plaines.

Halfway through Williams' three-year contract with District 62, he was paid $127,000 late last year to resign after allegations surfaced that he sexually harassed five female employees, some just months after he started the job.

Hank Gmitro, HYA's chief search associate and a former superintendent of Carol Stream Elementary District 93, wouldn't discuss specific searches, referring comment to the school boards that ultimately make the hiring decisions.

But elements of the firm's search process have changed over the last decade in response to concerns, he said, and adjustments will continue as needed.

“It's an evolving process,” said Gmitro, whose firm recently helped Huntley Community School District 158 find its new superintendent. “Yes, there's things to look for moving forward.”

A secret process

There are no public records showing what information HYA shared with the District 62 board, which discussed Williams' hiring during closed-door meetings. Although HYA was paid $24,750 to conduct the search — and another $12,500 to provide Williams job coaching — the school district doesn't have documents or reports prepared by the firm detailing its work.

HYA's search consultants did provide District 62 with a written report of Williams' background check. Duckmann said the board did not keep a copy, but that it did not include the specific misconduct allegations.

Williams spoke about his separation agreement in Kenosha when interviewed by the board, but didn't provide details of the allegations — only a general overview of what transpired, Duckmann said.

The board instructed HYA to interview more of his references, including the Kenosha school board president and principals he supervised at his previous employer, Milwaukee Public Schools. At the time, Duckmann attributed Williams' situation in Kenosha to a “strained and tense” relationship with his supervisor.

It wasn't until after his contract was signed with District 62 that the board received 115 pages from Williams' Kenosha personnel file containing the specific allegations, Duckmann said. The Daily Herald received those documents in June 2016 by filing a request under Wisconsin's Open Records Law.

Whether HYA or Baker-Eubanks — the Durham, North Carolina-based company that conducts background checks for HYA — would use Freedom of Information Act requests in their background searches in the future depends on the situation, said Gmitro, noting that laws vary from state to state.

That approach is not necessarily unusual, said Tom Leahy, the director of executive searches at the Illinois Association of School Boards, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for good governance in public schools. One part of the association's work is helping districts find superintendent candidates.

Leahy relies on people who can speak candidly about candidates, as opposed to personnel files.

“If I detect anything that would embarrass the new district, the old district, the board of education or us, we won't pass through someone who has questions,” Leahy said. “We truly are dealing with somebody who will change our students' lives.”

The association encourages school boards to publicize their top two or three candidates, then allow groups of community members, employees and sometimes students to conduct interviews.

Critics have accused search firms of providing school boards with candidates with whom they have professional or personal relationships.

Gmitro acknowledges consultants might suggest a job to someone with whom they're familiar, but said school board and community members also are asked to recommend candidates.

“We really work very hard at trying to have the candidate pool result in the desired characteristics the board creates,” he said. “We try to cast as wide a net as possible.”

Other searches

Williams' hiring in District 62 was not the first time a search led by HYA went poorly for a suburban district.

In 2009, HYA helped Naperville Unit District 203 find new Superintendent Mark Mitrovich. It wasn't until the day after his contract was approved that the school board learned Mitrovich's doctorate came from an unaccredited university.

Baker-Eubanks initially contacted the wrong university about Mitrovich, and then took more time to obtain records because the correct university had closed.

Gmitro told the Daily Herald at the time he was responsible for the delay and would look for ways to improve the process. Board members eventually withheld some of the search firm's payment, but decided to retain Mitrovich after reviewing his dissertation.

Verifying program accreditation — along with a review of financial and criminal records — was not part of HYA's search process in the past, but is now, because “boards want to know what is out there,” Gmitro said.

HYA also helped guide the Highland Park-based Township High School District 113 superintendent search that led to Laurie Kimbrel in 2015. She was offered the job, but backed out of her $255,000-a-year contract before her first day after it was learned that she had been hired by HYA as an associate. She never got paid because she didn't do any work for the firm, Gmitro told the Chicago Tribune in 2015.

Her husband also was accused of making disparaging online comments toward a parent in the California school district where she was superintendent, which did not come out before she was offered the job.

A new search?

HYA, now part of educational research and analytics firm ECRA Group, has conducted about 1,200 executive searches for school districts large and small since 1987. Gmitro says 85 percent of superintendents hired after HYA searches stay in their jobs at least five years.

Under most agreements HYA signs with school boards, the firm promises to conduct a new search at no additional cost — barring expenses — if the superintendent leaves for any reason within a year, or within two years if a majority of the board is still in place.

That free offer applies to District 62, but Duckmann wouldn't say whether the board would use the firm again. The board has appointed an interim superintendent through the 2018-2019 school year.

Duckmann said board members selected Williams based on the information they were provided at the time, but didn't say if she believes they had all the necessary information to make an informed decision.

“To speculate further would not change the circumstances under which Dr. Williams was hired,” she said.

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Nationwide examples of HYA's controversial picks

Former Naperville Unit District 203 Superintendent Mark Mitrovich was hired in 2009 despite having a degree from an unaccredited university - which was discovered only after his contract was approved. Daily Herald File Photo 2009
Laurie Kimbrel was hired by Highland Park-based Township High School District 113 in 2015, but backed out of the superintendent job before her first day after it was learned she had been hired by HYA as an associate.

Nationwide examples of HYA's controversial picks

Schaumburg-based Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates has had success bringing school districts superintendent candidates who went on to be named the best in Illinois and the country. But the firm has also found and presented candidates with controversial pasts.

Here are a few of them beyond the Chicago suburbs:

• Minnesota: In 2015, Minneapolis school board members picked Sergio Paez to lead the city's district <a href="">but rescinded the offer days later</a> amid allegations that staff members abused special education students at a district he led in Massachusetts, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Paez had <a href="">just lost his job there</a> when the state took control of the underperforming district, The Boston Globe reported.

• Michigan: Walter Milton Jr.'s application for the Flint School District included degrees he had not earned. In 2005, he got the job anyway but was later criticized for hiring a school administrator convicted of child molestation and leaving the district with financial problems, <a href="">the Flint Journal reported</a>.

• Tennessee: Despite John Covington resigning from two previous superintendent jobs, he was an HYA finalist to lead Nashville's public schools in 2015. He abruptly left a Kansas City, Missouri, district and took an education leadership job days later in Detroit where he eventually resigned amid criticism for lavish spending on travel and furniture, <a href="">the Tennessean reported</a>.

• Pennsylvania: Gary Smith, a finalist for North Allegheny School District superintendent in 1999, had previously been charged with fixing bids for a technology contract at his previous school district in South Carolina. He resigned and the charges were dropped, <a href="">according to the Sun-Sentinel</a> newspaper in Florida.

• Texas: Anthony Trujillo was fired from an El Paso school district for several reasons, including receiving improper benefits from district construction contractors and supporting a board member's re-election bid, <a href="">state records show</a>. Shortly after in 1999, HYA recommended him as a finalist to lead Dallas' school district, but he didn't get the job, the Sun-Sentinel reported.

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