In “Weird Science,” the 1985 John Hughes movie, Anthony Michael Hall’s nerdy Gary Wallace and Ilan Mitchell-Smith’s nerdier Wyatt Donnelly spend a weekend cramming their computer with every variable they imagine makes up the perfect woman, and hit “create.” Out comes Lisa, their dream girl (the two-and-a-half-hit wonder model Kelly LeBrock)–intelligent, beautiful, inventive, gutsy, much magically endowed to pull off any and all challenges.
That’s pretty much what the Flagler County School Board was up to on Tuesday as its members drew up their wish-lists of the qualities, ideals and aspirations they want to see in their new superintendent. In place of a computer they used the Florida School Board Association’s John Reichert and Bill Vogel, who compiled the list and will be in charge of drafting the job description that will go into the world, seeking a replacement for Jim Tager, the superintendent retiring in June.
They spent 90 minutes talking, among other blueprints, about the perfect candidate. They often used qualifiers that, but for the word “beautiful,” could have applied to Kelly LeBrock’s wonder-woman character: Smart, collaborator, risk-taker, innovator, relationship builder, knowledge-seeker, results-oriented, personable, and the occasional quality not quite associated with supermodels: humble (“we’re spoiled with that with Jim, but humble is nice,” board member Colleen Conklin said.”)
They also talked about the timeline–and moved it up. The previous plan was to have the finalists interviewed in early to mid-April, with the board picking a new superintendent on April 14. But both Conklin and Andy Dance were worried about placing the district at a disadvantage if the board waited until then.
Because I’m just wondering on the reverse side of that story,” Conklin said, “if they’re a superintendent, they’re telling their school board in April they’re not coming back in July–in June?”
Dance echoed the same concern. “Obviously,” he said, “we want to set this up so that we get as many good applicants as we can and not put anybody in a position where they don’t apply because they don’t want to put their current employer in a bad spot.”
“Which those are the people you would want to apply,” Conklin said. The board members also don’t want to repeat their last two superintendent searches’ timelines. Though the board ended up with superintendents it embraced both times, both searches were abbreviated, yielding a relatively limited list of candidates.
Naming a superintendent too early could undermine the sitting superintendent–Tager, in other words. “Is his job going to be as effective for February, March, April, May,” Reichert said. April is a key budget month. “I don’t believe that we’ve had any search where a superintendent has been named three or four months out of the effective start date.”
“Wouldn’t it make for a better cross-over,” Janet McDonald, the board chairman, said, “that the person doesn’t all of a sudden on June 1 have to start getting used to the district?”
“Then do you make Jim basically completely irrelevant,” Conklin said.
“No, I think it’s vital,” McDonald said. “Jim knows and has the best opportunities to have the best conversations while he’s here, not after he leaves. That would be imposing on his time away, and I think that’s what he’s mentioned to all of us, that he wants to make it the best transition possible.”
Board attorney Kristy Gavins cautioned: When Tager was appointed, the budget was already in place, the following year’s staff was already appointed. Tager did not want to make any changes from that point, but “that year, there were certain employees that he may have chosen otherwise” regarding their retention, Gavin said.
And it’s not as if candidates who apply for a job in Florida aren’t immediately telegraphing their intentions to their employers, Reichert said.
The board agreed to move the entire schedule up five weeks.
A citizens’ advisory committee will get all applications at its first meeting, and at its second meeting will pare the list down to those who should remain in the process–in essence, an ample short list. Rather than pick “semi-finalists” from that list, the school board will draw up its own short list from the advisory committee’s list. It will interview the candidates on March 4, 5 and 6, and name the next superintendent on March 10, the week ahead of spring break. The salary range is set between $145,000 and $185,000. Tager is currently at $145,000.
Along the way, there will be numerous steps, some of them involving internal, district-based focus groups and community-based focus groups, an online survey the public may participate in, and for the finalists, a meet-and-greet type reception for the public.
The consultants also wanted to know what board members were proud of in their district. The board members noted the district’s nearly two dozen flagship, classroom-to-careers programs, the much-improved graduation rate, the much-improved communications across the district, more secure facilities, and in McDonald’s words, the district’s attention to “sports, music and arts and technology.”
“Superintendent Tager has really set the stage for a lot of that,” Conklin said. “He’s really been a great educational leader. I think we are looking to replace a great educational leader.”
The consultants also wanted to hear about the next superintendent’s chief challenges. District finances and growth were the immediate responses. The district’s lack of a special, supplemental tax to complement state funding, is an issue (and getting one approved by voters will likely be among the next superintendents’ responsibilities). “One of the challenges is trying to figure out how we end up putting back time back in the school day and what that looks like,” Conklin said, “what can we afford and whether that requires a referendum or another vehicle. But I believe that’s a challenge that needs to be addressed.”
Dance is also concerned about the district’s aging bus fleet. And electronic literacy is an emerging issue. “Ten years ago I never would have thought to say a challenge for a superintendent would be understanding and working with and educating digital citizens within our student body,” Conklin said.
The board is meeting monthly in special session to focus on the search. On Tuesday, Tager was absent, as he was among the speakers at an educational-technology conference in Texas.