Dear Members of the Board:
With the dust now settled following the resignation of Superintendent Dr. Victor Hayek, it is time to focus on the task ahead: identifying and hiring a superior candidate to lead our wonderful school district. As school board members, hiring a superintendent is perhaps the most important thing you’ll do. It can also be one of the most personally rewarding things you do. It was for me.
During my tenure on the board, the district hired Dr. Michael Schilder as superintendent. Mike served the district for almost seven years and, with the team he assembled, helped the district soar not just in national and state rankings but equally in academic and non-academic achievement, community involvement, staff morale and conservative budgetary practices. I suspect by most measures he was the most successful superintendent hire the district made in decades.
Hiring a superintendent is a daunting task. Because of Gov. Christie’s freeze on superintendent salaries, many qualified candidates have left the state for better paying jobs elsewhere, leading to a smaller candidate pool generally. Because of the size, complexity and quality of our district, the candidate pool shrinks more as the qualifications you should require hopefully further limit the cohort of qualified applicants. And of course, there are many school districts in NJ that will be targeting the same applicants you may covet, making competition for the best applicants fierce.
You will also have to contend with Bridgewater-Raritan’s well-earned (but not wholly accurate) reputation as a school district that can’t keep a superintendent. Factors here that will impact the process include the short average tenure of superintendents in the district (other than Dr. Schilder), speculation surrounding Dr. Hayek’s quick departure, this board’s propensity for challenging superintendent-recommended programs and initiatives, and the level of management exercised by this board, as heard on recordings of board meetings this year and last in particular.
The good news is that, notwithstanding the above, Bridgewater-Raritan remains a highly respected and desirable school district and one that candidates seeking a larger or higher achieving district or a bigger job within the district will still find appealing. A successful search could very well be a wonderful opportunity for the district to not only survive the next transition, but to thrive as well.
Having co-chaired the search that resulted in the hiring of Dr. Schilder with Dr. Patricia Camp, BOE president at the time, and participating in the several searches that followed, I know the process and the players well. For the past 19 years, I’ve also run two successful recruiting firms. Because of my experience in the district and with this task, I share with you some suggestions you may want to consider as you perform the search.
- Abandon your current position that specific criteria shouldn’t be required and instead establish objective criteria you will require in your next superintendent. With almost 9,000 students and almost 1,000 employees in the district, it is indeed important that you require a minimum level of applicable experience rather than rely solely on gut feelings. I believe a minimum of six years’ experience as a front office administrator and/or building principal should be required, more is even better. In addition, I urge you to exclude any candidate who has had more than two employers in the last seven years. The most accurate indicator of success in a new job is the quality of the tenure an applicant had in previous jobs.
- Insure that BOE reviews resumes of all qualified persons who apply. During the last search, utilizing the same search firm you’ve retained now, the board did not see the resumes of all qualified applicants. As a result a small pool was made even smaller and, after the process extended a full year, less than a handful of qualified candidates were presented to the board. With that as a backdrop, there is no reason to allow the search firm or perhaps board leadership to filter application and no downside to mandating that your retained search firm present to all board members eligible to vote resumes of all qualified candidates. I find it odd and bothersome that the current plan is to do just that; it makes no sense.
- Acting quickly is indeed a good goal but it should be a goal only and not a “done deal.” If history can be used as a guide, chances are there will be a very small pool of strong applicants, especially if you permit it to be reduced before you even see resumes. Your goal should be to make the right choice, not to make the quick choice due to coincide with the sudden resignation of Dr. Hayek.
- Give due consideration to candidates that may emerge and who are currently working in the district. A candidate who is known to the board and who knows the district is much more likely to stay in the district, as she or he already knows the issues to overcome and the challenges he or she will likely face. A familiar candidate is also one who whose performance will probably be more in line with expectations. Hiring from within will also make the transition for the employees in the district easier. Not only will our loyal employees derive comfort from a decision to hire from within, the anxiety of “what will the next person do to materially impact my job?” will be lessened.
- Bridgewater-Raritan is not a school district that was or is in need of significant change. On the contrary, it is a superior school district as evidenced by our lofty position in state and national rankings, among other things. We are blessed with an outstanding and dedicated staff of teachers, administrators, and others. In the last 12 months there has been an alarming 80 percent turnover rate among senior administrators at Wade, and our staff has had to adjust to a very different leadership team than that which existed for many years’ prior as well as changing roles. Rather than seek another candidate who wants to put her or his stamp on the district from the start, I urge you to seek out a candidate who is content observing first and shaking the tree only after careful observation and deliberation.
- Conduct the search in an open and transparent manner. Seek input from the public and staff. Student input could also be helpful. Find out what is important to them and consider it as you investigate options. Share progress of the process at board meetings. These can all be accomplished without betraying the confidentiality of candidates.
- Stay focused on the task at hand. You are seeking an individual to be the educational leader of a large and challenging school district. Your next superintendent must have strong academic chops and demonstrated managerial skills. The traits should be foremost in your minds rather than whether she or he shares your personal view on any specific curricular area that’s relevant to any particular subgroup of students.
- The board needn’t be unanimous in its selection. Hiring a superintendent requires a majority vote from those eligible to vote. You needn’t secure the votes of a board member or two who may hold out for a candidate whose views match their own on any particular special interest as a prerequisite to making a choice.
- Morale matters. Too often decisions are made by boards of education that fail to take this simple tenet into account. A candidate who has a track record of working with employees collaboratively will acclimate more quickly than one who manages alone without taking into account the positions of those she or he oversees.