Archived Story

School board selects MLI for superintendent search

Published 10:12am Tuesday, March 2, 2010

By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News

Dowagiac Board of Education decided Michigan Leadership Institute (MLI) is more “plugged into” southwest Michigan than two competitors interviewed to conduct the search for retiring Superintendent Peg Stowers’ successor.

The school board met in the middle school cafeteria for three hours Monday night quizzing representatives of MLI, Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB) and North Star Staffing, whose consultant, Dr. Carl Hartman, was formerly affiliated with MASB.

MLI’s Dr. Craig Misner of Kalamazoo retired as the RESA superintendent after 10 years as Parchment superintendent.

He is in his third year with MLI. His wife, a Kalamazoo principal, and retired Bloomingdale and Mattawan superintendents are part of the team at the research institute, which as more than a search firm offers superintendent academies and other training. He is one of six regional presidents.

Misner just finished the superintendent search for Niles and has also been involved in recruiting executives for Lewis Cass Intermediate School District, Watervliet, Hartford, Lakeshore and Centreville and Mendon, which are combining their efforts in neighboring St. Joseph County.

MLI, which charges $6,500, plus $750 expenses, starts with a planning meeting to iron out logistics and timelines.

Out of that, Misner recommends as many as 10 to 20 focus groups as good for the consultants and the community. Meeting with staff, administration, community groups, paraprofessionals and students help him understand what Dowagiac seeks in its next school chief.

Misner “highly encourages” focus groups because the “more I know about the district and your desires, the more helpful it is.”

MLI develops a profile for a brochure candidates can consult. He brought Niles’ as an example to show the board.
These materials will be posted electronically on the MLI Web site and others. They get lots of response from Illinois, Indiana and even Iowa. All applications go to him in Kalamazoo.

Once a “pretty polished brochure” has been achieved, Misner returns to meet with the board. The position will be posted for six weeks. Resumes come in slowly until a flurry in the last few days before the deadline.

In addition to checking candidates’ references, Misner indicated he calls other sources. “We do a lot of digging.”

Misner then likes to bring resumes to board members to confidentially review for a week, which gives them some background before they meet to determine which candidates advance. Misner said in closed session he will recap all of the resumes, some in more detail than others. He recommends the ones he feels exhibit the strongest potential for Dowagiac to interview and maybe points out some other prospects. By May, the district should be ready to select six applicants for a first round of interviews.

Working with a colleague, he sets up a schedule and calls candidates to confirm their interest, then their names become public.

Misner suggested board members clear four nights to conduct two 90-minute interviews each night. The last night of the first round, the board’s hopefully difficult task will be narrowing the field to two to three finalists for a second round of questioning. He encourages finalists to spend the whole day meeting district staff.

The board might want to have dinner with finalists before one-hour interviews to see them in a different light. By this point in the process, the educators and board members will be well-acquainted.

One more tough decision awaits. Should they do a couple of site visits? “You need to verify what you’ve heard,” even if Dowagiac sends a three-member committee rather than the entire board, Misner recommended. MLI will also be available to help negotiate a contract, if needed.

In fact, MLI remains on call for a year to mentor the new superintendent with orientation sessions. Half of districts take advantage of this service.

“This is a big decision for you,” said Misner, whose father was also a school superintendent. “I will be here until we find you the right person.” Searches consume 14 weeks on average. He projected Dowagiac could complete interviews in May or early June and identify someone before July 1, when Stowers is officially done.

“I’ve got a passion for helping school districts find superintendents,” said Misner, who disputes rumors that 40 percent of Michigan school chiefs could step down given all the financial uncertainty roiling Lansing.

Second, the board spoke with Gunnard Johnson, who lives about 100 miles away in Lake Odessa. His 39 years in public education included elementary and high school principalships and seven years as a superintendent. He became a consultant five years ago and conducted three searches this past year. MASB has done some 400 searches.

“At all times, the board’s in charge,” Johnson said. “We’re here to help you” through a 12- to 14-week process that includes developing a profile of what Dowagiac wants in terms of skills and experiences. Candidates applying for superintendent are also asked to profile themselves.

MASB offers a database which might match Dowagiac with the right candidate, though anyone can apply and no one is excluded. In the first month he seeks input from staff and community, spending a day at buildings, eating lunch and hanging out after school, posing such questions as what do you like about your district and what would you like to see accomplished in the next five years? MASB also conducts an online survey which it can connect to Dowagiac’s Web site. Centerline received more than 200 responses.

Johnson favors posting online immediately, then updating as warranted because he knows potential applicants check constantly from as far away as Arizona, Colorado and Germany. When resumes are in, he furnishes the board with a disk for its leisurely review. The board sees candidates’ names, but is asked to keep them confidential. Candidates are referred to by number during the screening process.

Since MASB, which has 17 consultants, runs four-day “boot camps” for prospective superintendents, they are advised of vacancies. “We advertise that job all the time,” said Johnson, who complimented Dowagiac on its Web site.

Twenty to 25 applications usually answer a posting.

In getting the number of resumes pared to six for interviews, board members can either read them all and select or ask Johnson to bring them 10 or 12 which meet the profile.
“It’s your search,” he emphasized.

MASB “only operates in the open, in front of everybody,” he said.

The six will be taken down to two or three for second interviews, which Johnson helps schedule and, if desired, community visits before the second interviews. MASB charges $7,325, plus 55 cents a mile.

If the board’s first choice declines, the board must keep in mind, “Can you live with No. 2?” cautioned Johnson, who envisioned 10 Dowagiac visits, depending on whether two or three interviews were conducted a night. He went to Centerline 15 times because its number-one candidate declined the job. He usually works with the board president, rather than a three-member committee Dowagiac has, but “I’ll do whatever,” Johnson said.
What if we can’t live with the second candidate? asked board member Larry Seurynck. Johnson suggested looking at the rest of the field of candidates and either bringing someone back, dipping further into the existing pool or extending the search a month and reposting.

Johnson was not working with any other boards at this point and would not work with more than two at any one time. He recently participated in searches for Bridgeport-Spaulding Community School District, Goodrich Public Schools and Centerline Public Schools. He said it is important the board listen to staff and the community. He likes being a consultant because it “keeps my hand in schools and in knowing people.”

Johnson confided that the worst part of his job was what he was doing – selling himself to the board.

The best? Watching a board come together and rise to the task. He warned the board about how time-consuming the process will be even with MASB recruiting people to apply it thinks are good fits.

North Star, which represents 30 to 35 districts, complimented Dowagiac on its “beautiful” middle school and its big gymnasium. Hartman is working with Ithaca at present.

He was a superintendent for 16 years and conducted more than 200 searches while with MASB for 12 years. North Star has consultants in the Upper Peninsula, the Thumb and in Flint and Detroit and Lansing. Hartman lives in Haslett. As a former president of the National Searchers Association, he can learn of out-of-staters with ease.

Hartman said North Star thinks two things are important to the process – the timeline, which the board is in charge of, though the application deadline should remain firm since candidates are great procrastinators; and the profile, for the characteristics, qualities and experiences the board feels it is important for the superintendent to possess.

After advertising the position on Web sites – and he also praised the quality of Dowagiac’s – then North Star would conduct focus groups to gather community input, posing three to four specific questions to students and staff.

There is also an electronic survey. North Star brings back the data in the form of a report.
There are usually two rounds of interviews and community visits. The profile “drives the entire process,” Hartman said, so it’s key to agree on what Dowagiac is looking for. “We know all the candidates.” The board’s packets will list every candidate who applies with an emphasis on those Hartman feels best meet criteria.

“Our number-one job is to assist you through this process” as a facilitator attending all interviews, he said. A workshop with the new superintendent would clearly define expectations going forward. North Star would also be available as a go-between in contract negotiations.

“We can be of great assistance to you,” he said. That would include scripting interview questions and a guarantee that if the selection doesn’t work out, they come back and redo the process for free except for mileage from Lansing.

There are “no hidden costs,” said Hartman, who can discuss candidates in closed session.
The best predictor for future success is past performance, Hartman said, to detect those who interview well, but lack substance. “Never discount your intuition” as a collection of seven individuals.

He likes to e-mail progress reports to all of the board members so they have a common reference point. He begins eight to 10 visits by talking with all administrators.

North Star compiles probing interview inquiries. “We make hard questions. These are no softballs,” Hartman said, with the second round full of follow-up queries.

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