Superintendent Search Step One: Hire Help

Two potential consultants meet with school board members

Representatives from two executive search consultants met with two members of the Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education on Friday to discuss the request for proposals (RFP) recently issued by the district. In the last week of August, the district issued the RFP, which solicits proposals to help with the board’s search for a new superintendent, after Todd Roberts resigned in mid-August.


AAPS board members Susan Baskett and Glenn Nelson met with representatives of two search consultants who will be bidding for the contract to help AAPS with its superintendent search. (Photos by the writer.)

The two consultants that attended were the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB), from Lansing, and David J. Kinsella and Associates, from Ann Arbor. By the end of the meeting, both consultants said their questions had been answered, and that they planned to submit proposals.

As the board embarks on the replacement process for Roberts – the district’s current superintendent who will be leaving in November – it has decided to hire an executive search firm to help in the recruitment, selection, and hiring process. Friday’s meeting was optional, and offered potential bidders a chance to ask questions of board members Glenn Nelson and Susan Baskett before bids are due on Friday, Sept. 10 at 10 a.m.

Dave Comsa, AAPS assistant superintendent of human resources and legal services, opened the meeting by inviting the consultants to interact informally with the board members. Dick Dunham of MASB began by asking whether the board as a whole planned to be involved in the superintendent search, or if the search firm would be interacting mainly with a committee of the board.

Nelson said that although the board had not addressed that question explicitly, his belief was that the board was planning to work on the search as a “committee of the whole.” “Based on history, and how we work, I think it will be the entire board,” he said, clarifying that some specific tasks may be delegated to board president Deb Mexicotte throughout the process. “We trust our president,” Nelson said.

Baskett echoed his sentiments, saying that the selection of a new superintendent was such an important job, they would all take part. She added, “We [board members] have a history of working well together,” and assured the consultants that “it would not be cumbersome” to work with the full board. “There are only seven of us,” she said.

AAPS search firm reps at RFP pre-bid meeting

From left to right: Dave Kinsella of David J. Kinsella and Associates; Dick Dunham and William Brewer of Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB).

Dave Kinsella of David J. Kinsella and Associates asked how many of the current board members had been part of the search for Roberts in 2006. Four of the seven current board members – Nelson, Baskett, Mexicotte and Irene Patalan – had been involved. Baskett pointed out, “This will [Nelson’s] fourth superintendent.” Nelson provided some additional context, explaining that, though there were five board seats up for election in November, only incumbents had filed. “If the thought arises that you might be working with a different group [of board members] in January,” he said, “you won’t.”

Both consultants asked about the extent of community involvement in the search process expected by the board. Baskett began the response by saying, “You know Ann Arbor – we expect it all.”

Nelson explained that the search consultant that the board had employed during the search for Roberts – which was MASB, one the two bidders at the meeting – had facilitated open meetings at which community input was solicited, synthesized the suggestions, and reported them back to the board. He stressed the consultant’s role in that part of the process, and suggested that the board would expect the same level of involvement in managing community input this time around. Nelson also mentioned that, during the Roberts search, a committee of community members appointed by the board met with the candidates. He emphasized, “Community input is very, very important.”

William Brewer, also from MASB, asked if the board had identified principal constituencies from which it would want input solicited. Baskett answered, “Yes, it’s a long list.” Nelson named performing arts groups, civic groups, and community centers as some of the constituents to be included, but noted there were many more.

Baskett stated that some feedback she received after the last search made her question whether some members of the community would participate in another search process. She noted that the board would look to the search firm they hire to help get the community involved, and stated that she wants people to leave happy that they participated. Nelson agreed, “This is part of where we need help, efficiently bringing in the community.” He added that the goal should be for everyone to know the search was a good, fair, open process.

Dunham confirmed that the board wanted to do a national search for a superintendent, and asked whether the board would entertain a non-traditional candidate, such as someone who had experience in the private sector but no experience in education.

Baskett answered that the board had not yet discussed desired criteria of the next superintendent, and that they would be looking for advice from the search firm to craft these criteria. Nelson then followed with a response he stressed was only his individual perspective. He noted that some universities have a governance model in which a president manages external affairs, and a provost manages internal ones. “I can see us entertaining the notion of that kind of structure,” he said, “in which case, we would want the best CEO in the country as the superintendent, and the best educational expert in the country as the deputy superintendent of instruction.” [The AAPS deputy superintendent of instruction position is currently unfilled, but was maintained in the district’s 2010-11 budget.]

Dunham asked the board members to explain how the AAPS strategic plan is relevant to the search process. Nelson answered, “We don’t want the coming months to be a period of treading water.” He expressed an interest in the district continuing to update the plan’s action items, and emphasized that the plan belonged to the district, not to the superintendent. Baskett agreed, saying, “We’re not going to give it up.”

Nelson did note, however, that the 180 people actively involved in the strategic planning process would likely overlap with those who would attend the community meetings focused on the superintendent search. This overlap could cause the timeline for the strategic planning process to be amended due to the superintendent search, Nelson conceded.

Both consultants complimented the board on the comprehensive nature of the RFP. Kinsella joked that he “would have had to be an oral surgeon” to extract this depth of information from previous clients.

Nelson first thanked the consultants for their feedback, and said that the board is proud of itself. He gave kudos to both board treasurer Christine Stead for writing the first draft of the RFP, and Comsa for providing excellent staff support of the board’s work. Nelson then took the opportunity to characterize the board as one that is “respectful of expertise, but likely to say, ‘Show me.’”

Baskett agreed, saying, “I like to think of us as intelligent, but not snooty.” She noted that five of the seven current board members have worked as consultants in some capacity, and that she herself had managed many government contracts. “We don’t follow blindly,” she said, “but do recognize that others have talent we could use.” Baskett closed the meeting by asserting, “The seven of us enjoy working with each other. We hope whoever we choose enjoys working with us.”

Present: Board secretary Glenn Nelson, trustee Susan Baskett, and Dave Comsa, assistant superintendent of human resources and legal services.

Next regular meeting: Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010, 7 p.m., Downtown Ann Arbor District Library, fourth floor board room, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]


  1. By Glenn Nelson (School Board Member)
    September 6, 2010 at 10:00 pm | permalink

    Thank you, Ann Arbor Chronicle and Jennifer, for your coverage of this very important topic. Your dissemination of information helps greatly to inform citizens of what we board members are doing and of how citizens can make effective, efficient input. An excellent superintendent of the public schools is one of the most critical facets to keep our community the wonderful place that it is.

  2. By Bob Martel
    September 7, 2010 at 7:18 pm | permalink

    Let’s make sure to add “potential for longevity” to the search criteria this time!

  3. By johnboy
    September 8, 2010 at 1:10 am | permalink

    I hear that Doris Hope-Jackson is available.