Student involvement in superintendent search

Since my local school district has been looking for a new superintendent, I’ve been doing some reading and thinking about the process.  In the last few weeks, I’ve written several posts¹ about various facets of the process, with particular emphasis on its public relations aspects.

I deliberately avoided discussing the role of students in the process for two reasons.

First, although students are certainly impacted by the work of a superintendent, they typically don’t know much about what the superintendent does or how she does it.

Second, students probably have even less information about the laws governing hiring than adults, who typically have little.

Those two considerations render students’ input into selecting the best candidate of little value.

That said, however, students could be very useful in other ways that also provide them with genuine learning opportunities.

Learn and share: 3 potential activities

I hate having students do a project that accomplishes only one objective, so I’ll suggest three ways that students could

  1. learn some communications skills
  2. while learning some other content, and
  3. providing a community service.

First idea. Students could research facets of employment law to develop informational materials for the adult stake holders to use. Depending on their topics, the research could be in print and digital sources or it could be interviews with specialists in human resources and labor law.

Students’ findings could be presented as audio, video, infographics, blog posts, printed pages, etc.

Second  idea. Another potentially useful activity would be the development of information to help candidates get a feel for the school culture.

A 3-minute video about the music program that includes interviews with current and former students, community supporters, and parents would help candidates understand the importance of music in the district, for example.

An infographic about the district, perhaps one on its demographics or one focused on what students do after high school graduation, could be useful not only to candidates but also to a school board attempting to educate its community.

Third  idea. A third potentially useful activity would be the development of information to help newcomers get acquainted with the community. People who have lived all their lives in a community often are oblivious to the kinds of information newcomers, like a new school superintendent’s family, would find useful.

Again students would have a host of options available for presenting their information.

Each of these kinds of activities requires critical thinking, learning, and communicating on real topics for real people in the real world.

¹Other posts on hiring a school superintendent

Superintendent candidate questions

Questions from the community for candidates

Due diligence: Resources for schools hiring a superintendent

The superintendent search: A PR perspective (7-part series)

  • Part 1: Introduction
  • Part 2: Identify stakeholders
  • Part 3: Set stage for stakeholder participation
  • Part 4:  Prepare the invitation to apply and  give potential interviewers resources
  • Part 5:  Keep good interview records
  • Part 6:  Check references following interviews
  • Part 7:  Explain your choice & archive paperwork

The superintendent search from a PR perspective (part 7)

The last public relations activities in hiring a school superintendent are announcing the results and filing the paperwork.

7. Explain your choice to stakeholders

After the school board has made its selection and the successful candidate has accepted the job offer, the board needs to explain the reasons for its choice.Failure to give reasons for choosing the successful candidate over other applicants makes the public wonder if the school board simply picked a name from a hat.

The explanation need not be lengthy, but should mention assets the candidate brings to the school. That may be experience with particular problems, such as managing a building program; personal qualities (particularly if the person who is leaving lacked them); prior knowledge of the district or readiness to move to the district.

After one superintendent search on which I served, most of the committee members turned out at the board meeting to hear why a particular candidate was chosen.  The board president gave no reason for choosing that candidate. My committee had found no reason to hire him either, but that didn’t increase our respect for the school board.

One hopes the board’s rationale should tally with the position description and also reflect the preferences of the stakeholder groups. However, the school board is not only allowed but obligated to make its own choice if its investigation reveals information that renders a particular candidate unsuitable for the job.

If a candidate who was the overwhelming choice of stakeholder groups is found to have what politicians might call “enhanced credentials,” for public relations reasons the board needs to prepare bland explanation why that person was not chosen, such as “an anomaly was noticed when checking references that made us question the candidate’s ability to work here successfully.” With some planning and a little luck, it should not be necessary to make the statement publicly.

The school board could assign a member to speak privately to an individual on each of the interview committees that supported the favored candidate who was not chosen. By keeping the comment out of the board meeting and phrasing it as an appreciation for the committee’s work and respect for their opinions, it should be possible to minimize any negative feelings toward the board without revealing an issue relative to someone who isn’t a school employee.

8. Archive the paperwork

If the school board has exercised due diligence and the candidate who is hired does a reasonably good job, there will probably never be a question about whether the process was done well.

If something goes wrong, having retrievable documentation showing what was done is insurance against a public relations tornado.

Put the paperwork away where it can be retrieved but not easily found; scanning it as PDFs stored in a zipped file, for example, would make it retrievable for the foreseeable future but not easily found.

Earlier posts in this series:

  • Part 1: Introduction
  • Part 2: Identify stakeholders
  • Part 3: Set stage for stakeholder participation
  • Part 4:  Prepare the invitation to apply and  give potential interviewers resources
  • Part 5:  Keep good interview records
  • Part 6:  Check references following interviews

The superintendent search from a PR perspective, (part 6)

In the previous post in this series, I talked about the need to have good records showing the board exercised due diligence in the interview process. Those records might be used to show that the board did not discriminate against candidates by, for example, asking illegal questions or asking totally different sets of questions of each candidate.

In addition to those records, the school board needs to have records showing it exercised due diligence in checking candidates’ references.

Increasingly, public bodies are being held accountable for negligent hiring if it can be shown they failed to probe deeply enough to uncover information which, if known to the board at the time, would have kept a particular candidate from being hired.

6. Check references  after interviews

Reference checking after the interviews is the most important part of the hiring process. The point of the checks is not only to verify the accuracy of information listed on the application and CV but also to see if people who have worked with the candidates view their record as they themselves do.

Whoever is responsible for checking references needs to push beyond the references listed on the application and CV. Unless candidates are totally incompetent they will not list people who will not speak well of them in general. Asking references to suggest others who might have more knowledge or a different perspective is a legitimate way to get relevant information.

Here, too, the information must be documented so its clear what was asked and what was answered.

Tomorrow: Part 7:

All the posts in this series:

  • Part 1: Introduction
  • Part 2: Identify stakeholders
  • Part 3: Set stage for stakeholder participation
  • Part 4:  Prepare the invitation to apply and  give potential interviewers resources
  • Part 5:  Keep good interview records
  • Part 6:  Check references following interviews
  • Part 7:  Explain your choice & archive paperwork

The superintendent search from a PR perspective (part 5)

Up until candidates are interviewed, most of the work of searching for a new superintendent is planning.

First, the school board develops a plan for the overall process, then it develops plans for engaging stakeholders and proactively enabling them to participate well in the process.

Those planning processes are activities that hold good opportunities for the school board to earn public relations points by showing what it is doing to make sure it is going to get the best candidate available to it.

The actual choice process, however, is almost entirely closed to any by invited participants.

Except for general information, there’s rarely a reason for what happens in the closed sessions to be made public.

The one reason the closed session information might need to be made public is when subsequent disclosures suggest the school board failed to exercise due diligence.  In such cases, public relations activities are used to limit the damage to the board’s reputation.

The best PR mechanism for controlling damage is good records showing the board did exercise due diligence.

The first protective measure is having complete records of the candidate interviews.

5. Keep good interview records

A list of initial questions a stakeholder group wants to ask each candidate should be prepared in advance and kept short enough that all the prepared questions can be asked and answered and still allow time for follow-up questions. Those initial questions lists should be submitted to the school board before the board members prepare their own interview questions.

Written records should show what topics were discussed by which stakeholder groups with each candidate—and that the same topics were discussed with each one.

The records should also show how each interviewer rated each candidate, and summarize the ratings for each stakeholder group on each candidate. (Links to sample forms in a post about resources for hiring superintendents.) Also a copy of the each groups’ questions should be kept with the stakeholder groups’ evaluation forms.

I alluded earlier in this series of posts to the need for the school board to decide early in the hiring process how much weight the various stakeholder groups opinions should carry. This weighting of input has no direct part in the hiring process, but it should have a part in determining what issues are followed up in post-interview reference checks.

For simplicity, let’s say the board has identified five stakeholder groups whose opinions are to be sought. They might decide to assign these weights to the opinions of the various groups:

  • administrative staff – 3
  • instructional staff – 4 votes
  • non-instructional staff – 1 vote
  • parents – 1 vote
  • community – 1 vote

Weighting the results would give the school board a sense of which finalists’ references need to be checked very carefully on the topics relative to the concerns of a particular group.

For example, if a particular issue is a big concern to the instructional staff, that would suggest the board needs to probe for information about how candidates handle that issue when they check references because the board decided in advance that the instructional staff’s input would be given the most weight of all the stakeholder groups.

Tomorrow: Part 6: Check references

All the posts in this series:

  • Part 1: Introduction
  • Part 2: Identify stakeholders
  • Part 3: Set stage for stakeholder participation
  • Part 4:  Prepare the invitation to apply and  give potential interviewers resources
  • Part 5:  Keep good interview records
  • Part 6:  Check references following interviews
  • Part 7:  Explain your choice & archive paperwork

 

The superintendent search from a PR perspective (part 4)

The first two steps in the superintendent search help get the school community involved in a preliminary way in the process of hiring a new superintendent.

The next two steps prepare the school community to engage with candidates.

3. Prepare the invitation to apply

For the superintendent search to be seen as fair and transparent, the school board should make the application package available for everyone in the district as well as potential candidates to read. Failure to make the materials publicly available often suggest to the public that the school board has something to hide.

The Franklin NY Central School District, which is currently seeking a superintendent, has made its information available on its website. The information is easy to find on the site. It:

  • gives an easy-to-read snapshot of the district,
  • tells why the superintendent position is open,
  • lists the titles of the administrative staff,
  • specifies the initial contract period and salary range,
  • lists what the district values in a superintendent.

Not only does the publicly posted information give potential applicants a way to quickly assess whether the job appeals to them but also gives the school employees, parents, and community accurate information about the superintendent search.

If a district has particular needs or interest areas, its school board may wish to consider whether there are ways to get a feel for how a short list of candidate performs in that area. For example, if the district is concerned about candidates’ ability to mentor teachers, the board might tell candidates that if they survive the first cut, they’ll be asked to submit a 2-4 minute video showing them mentoring a teacher or a 2-4 minute video in which one, two, or three teachers tell about their experience being mentored by the candidate.

4. Give potential interviewers resources

Unless the interviews are to be conducted entirely by human resources professionals, interview participants are likely to need some help preparing. The resources I discussed in an earlier blog post might be a good starting, since they are all available free online and could be made available via links on the school website.

Everyone who participates in interviewing candidates need to be aware of the kinds of questions that are prohibited by law.

They also need to know how to record information so that someone who did not observe the interviews would know what topics/questions were discussed and how each individual interviewer rated the candidates’ answers.

Tomorrow: Part 5

All the posts in this series:

  • Part 1: Introduction
  • Part 2: Identify stakeholders
  • Part 3: Set stage for stakeholder participation
  • Part 4:  Prepare the invitation to apply and  give potential interviewers resources
  • Part 5:  Keep good interview records
  • Part 6:  Check references following interviews
  • Part 7:  Explain your choice & archive paperwork

 

The superintendent search from a PR perspective (part 3)

If you want people to participate in an activity that requires some serious thought, set the stage by getting folks thinking about the goal early.

If the goal is to hire a superintendent who is a good fit for the district and the community, it’s smart to start people thinking about what qualities are essential for that person to have demonstrated in other settings.

Such preparation is good management, and its good public relations.

2. Set the stage for stakeholder input

One way to set the stage is by surveying all the in-school stakeholders (other than students) and all the non-employee parents/guardians. Technology makes it relatively easy to conduct the surveys digitally, with people responding by smartphone, tablet, or compute

If a school district doesn’t have an instrument available, it might use a list of qualities often associated with executive job holders as the basis for two-question survey.

The first question would ask stakeholders to (1) pick from a list the five qualities they think are most important to be sure a candidate for superintendent has and (2) to rank those qualities in order of importance from 1 to 5.

The second question would ask respondents to select the stakeholder group to which they belong.

Stakeholders should be encouraged to share their ideas with others in their interest group after they’ve submitted their personal responses. The wider the discussion, the greater the likelihood that individuals from the stakeholder group who are chosen to participate in the interview process will represent the group rather than just their individual interests.

Value of a written survey

The survey would accomplish several things. It would:

  • give each member of the non-student school groups an opportunity to participate in the selection process.
  • help individual stakeholders evaluate whether they could, if asked, represent the thinking of their entire group.
  • give the school board a rough idea of the issues each stakeholder group would probably wish to discuss with each candidate.
  • give members of the various stakeholder groups some specific topics around which they may wish to focus questions for the candidates.
  • give all the stakeholders a rough idea of the kinds of topics that are suitable to ask questions about at an interview.
  • begin to create a public impression that the hiring process is fair, open, and transparent.

When the school board thanks the stakeholders for completing the survey, it would be appropriate to tell the groups how people to participate in the actual interviews will be chosen.

Tomorrow : Part 4

All the posts in this series:

  • Part 1: Introduction
  • Part 2: Identify stakeholders
  • Part 3: Set stage for stakeholder participation
  • Part 4:  Prepare the invitation to apply and  give potential interviewers resources
  • Part 5:  Keep good interview records
  • Part 6:  Check references following interviews
  • Part 7:  Explain your choice & archive paperwork

 

The superintendent search from a PR perspective (part 2)

In my previous post, I laid out the reasons the process of hiring a new superintendent needs to be designed for fairness, transparency, and consideration for stakeholders.

Today I’m going to begin laying out eight steps in the process of hiring a school superintendent where the right approach can boost a school’s standing with the public.

The first step is to determine specifically who “the public” is.

1. Who are your publics?

The people who have an interest in the hiring process and its outcome is a large and diverse group.  It includes people are know they are interested and people who should be interested but aren’t.

A school board needs to take a close look at subgroups within the public to determine what kinds of information will get their attention and encourage a positive impression of the board and the school district.

1a. Identify school stakeholder groups

Within a school system, there are identifiable non-student groups with fairly clear-cut common responsibilities, credentials, and employment status. Although the makeup of the groups may vary somewhat from schools to school, they include:

  • administrative staff, both instructional and non-instructional, including principals, the financial officer, the transportation manager, etc.
  • instructional staff, including full- and part-time faculty and instructional support staff, such as teacher aides.
  • non-instructional staff, both full- and part-time. This includes coaches, bus drivers, custodians, etc.
  • the school board members

A district also has some stakeholders outside its buildings.

The most obvious of these is the parents/guardians of current students who do not have family members employed by the school or on the school board. They need to be treated as a distinct group.

1b. Identify outside stakeholder groups

The largest stakeholder group, the “outside community” is likely to be a hodgepodge of:

  • property owners in the district whose only connection to the school may be via their tax bill
  • business owners in the district
  • families who live in the school district but home-school or those whose children attend school elsewhere
  • residents in the district who don’t own property there

People who fit one of these descriptions and do not have current personal ties to the school should be treated as a stakeholder group. Their lack of present, personal connection makes them hard to reach, but their numbers make them an important group in the school district’s success.

Why the diversity matters

In planning what messages to release, the school board’s PR agent has to make sure that the messages are clear to the intended audiences. Terminology that’s readily understood by teachers may be meaningless to the maintenance staff, and vice versa.

Sometimes being clear to stakeholders necessitates preparing one version of information specifically for in-school audiences and another for outside audiences.

For example, parents may not know they are interested in how well candidates manage the budgeting process until their kids’ music or sports program is threatened.

The people crafting the media releases can do a better and more efficient job if they know the makeup of the target audience.

Next:  Set the stage for stakeholder participation

All the posts in this series:

  • Part 1: Introduction
  • Part 2: Identify stakeholders
  • Part 3: Set stage for stakeholder participation
  • Part 4:  Prepare the invitation to apply and  give potential interviewers resources
  • Part 5:  Keep good interview records
  • Part 6:  Check references following interviews
  • Part 7:  Explain your choice & archive paperwork

 

 

 

The superintendent search: A PR perspective (part 1)

Since my local school district has started looking again for a superintendent, I’ve been thinking about the entire hiring process.

Over the years, I’ve been involved in hiring for businesses and public institutions.

On the business side, in addition to hiring for my own businesses,  I’ve hired staff for the two newspapers for which I was a local news editor, and worked in the human resources department of a resort hotel.

On the public side, I was a community representative in the interview process for Superintendent Donald Wheeler. By coincidence, I was also involved in the interview process for Bainbridge-Guilford’s search facilitator, Alan Pole, when he applied to be superintendent of the DCMO BOCES; I was on the BOCES Instructional Support staff then.  I was also on a committee that chose the architect the State of West Virginia hired to design its  Eastern Panhandle juvenile detention center in the early 1980s.

Those diverse experiences taught me that there’s no right way to hire: The process needs to fit the job.

The process also has to satisfy its public.

Understandable, accessible public information is the center of good school public relations.  I know that from a theoretical perspective (my second masters is from the educational communications program at Syracuse University, where my courses were in the school of education and the Newhouse School of Public Communications)  and from covering public education as a newspaper reporter.

People at the local level are very interested in the activities of their local governing bodies.

When they appear not to be interested, the reason is almost always the failure of those local governing bodies to provide information in ways that are conveniently accessible and understandable.

In preparing to do a superintendent search, the school board or its representative needs to figure out how to make each of the constituent groups feel its concerns have been heard. That public relations task is essential during a time of transition.

The board also needs to figure out how much weight the various stakeholder groups opinions should carry.  That decision that’s best made early in the hiring process before applications begin being received so that hiring process is perceived to be fair and unbiased.

In hiring a new superintendent, a school board has a chance to score points with the public for the open, accessible, and thorough way they handle the search.

The also have a chance to land the unwitting new person in hot water and discredit themselves with the public by their ineptitude.

In a series of blog posts,  I’ll lay out a plan for hiring a school superintendent, approaching the process from the perspective of what needs to happen to satisfy the public’s need for information so the process appears fair and transparent and so stakeholders feel their concerns have been taken into consideration.

Related posts:

All the posts in this series:

  • Part 1: Introduction
  • Part 2: Identify stakeholders
  • Part 3: Set stage for stakeholder participation
  • Part 4:  Prepare the invitation to apply and  give potential interviewers resources
  • Part 5:  Keep good interview records
  • Part 6:  Check references following interviews
  • Part 7:  Explain your choice & archive paperwork