School Board Issues RFP for Search Firm

Ann Arbor superintendent to suggest interim appointments

Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education meeting (Aug. 23, 2010): At a special meeting held Monday, the school board approved a request for proposals (RFP) from professional services firms to assist them as they search for a new superintendent. The RFP was released to search firms and posted on the AAPS website [.pdf of RFP]. The district’s current superintendent, Todd Roberts, has resigned, and will be leaving the district by mid-November to move closer to family and to become chancellor of the North Carolina School for Science and Math.

Christine Stead and Deb Mexicotte

Christine Stead and Deb Mexicotte discuss a draft of the RFP from search firms to help with the hiring of a new superintendent. (Photos by the writer.)

Board treasurer Christine Stead had offered to draft an RFP for board review at the last regular board meeting. Monday’s meeting was an opportunity for the rest of the board to review her work, and suggest changes. Most of the recommended changes were accepted without objection, but others led to some reflective discussion that revealed priorities for the board.

One of the changes made to the RFP was to add a pre-bid meeting for the purpose of answering clarifying questions about the RFP. The pre-bid meeting will be held on Friday, Sept. 3 at 10 a.m., at the Balas Administration Building, 2555 S. State Street. Any interested bidders are invited to participate in person or via teleconference. The deadline for submitting responses to the RFP is Friday, Sept. 10 at 10 a.m.

The only other official business conducted at Monday’s meeting was the passing of a motion to entertain Roberts’ suggestions for interim staff, which he will bring to the next board meeting.

A Review of the Draft RFP

Board president Deb Mexicotte opened the meeting by simply stating that its purpose was to review the RFP drafted by Christine Stead for the purpose of selecting an executive search firm to help the board choose the next AAPS superintendent. Mexicotte also pointed out that the board does not usually issue RFPs directly, and she thanked Dave Comsa, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources and legal services, for attending the meeting in case the board had any human resource or legal questions.

Stead began by reviewing the RFP she had written for the board’s review, stressing its status as a draft: “Every part of this can change – the content, the order, the timeline.” She then presented an RFP with the following seven sections:

  1. RFP Milestones
  2. Firm Background Information Required
  3. Scope of Work
  4. Search Process – Anticipated Milestones
  5. The Context of Our Search
  6. District Goals Relevant for the Search
  7. Submission Requirements

The RFP milestones suggested by Stead reflected the timeline discussed at the last board meeting, which would result in a search firm being selected at the Sept. 29 board meeting.

The firm background section is essentially the list of questions to which the firms will be expected to respond in their proposals. Stead explained that this section asks the firms to highlight their capabilities and demonstrate that they have been successful in similar searches. “Here,” she said, “is where we’ve asked for price estimates, duration, and proposed search timeline.”

The scope of work, Stead described, are the exact specifications of this project. “We are asking for assistance in a particular way,” Stead said, “We want to understand how they develop search criteria, how they identify candidates, and how they identify community priorities.” Stead pointed out that while the scope of work indicates that community engagement is a requirement for the selection of a permanent superintendent, AAPS does not specify how to involve the community. “That would be up to the search firm to propose.”

The search process/anticipated milestones section includes the following key dates:

  • Sept. 29, 2010: search firm selected
  • Oct. 27, 2010: interim superintendent selected
  • Nov. 15, 2010: interim superintendent start date
  • May 4, 2011: permanent superintendent selected
  • July 1, 2011: permanent superintendent start date

The milestones section also states that modifications to the timeline can be recommended by the search firm. Stead noted that she reviewed the board meeting calendar to come up with the dates, and that the two months between the hiring and start date of the permanent superintendent were built-in time for transition activities. For instance, Stead suggested, they could allow the new superintendent to “get to know our folks while getting things wrapped up in his or her own district.”

The next two sections – the context of the search and the district goals – are “somewhat subjective,” according to Stead. She explained that she had intended the context section as a past-oriented section used to express that the board “has had a lot going on,” as well as to present the culture of leadership the district has experienced under Roberts. The district goals section is future-oriented, and describes the main focal points of the district’s work this year. It includes sections on: updating the strategic plan, continuing resource challenges facing the district, the district’s challenge to close its achievement gaps among students, and maintaining community engagement.

Stead then closed by pointing out that the submission requirements call for eight hard copies, one for each trustee, plus one for the board office. She also suggested that each firm submit a copy of its proposal electronically, in case the board wants to more widely distribute it for some reason. With that, Stead opened the floor for suggested changes.

Suggested Changes to the Draft RFP

Mexicotte thanked Stead for putting together the RFP for the board’s review. Over the next two and a half hours, trustees made suggestions, and Stead amended the RFP in real time, so that by the time they were finished, the document was complete, pending technical proofreading and review by legal counsel. Most suggested changes drew no objections from other board members, but in a few cases, there was some discussion.

RFP Changes: Diversity

The first of the items requiring any discussion was brought by trustee Simone Lightfoot, who said she was looking for the word “diverse” throughout the document. Mexicotte asked where would be a good place in the RFP to speak to the board’s diversity concerns. Lightfoot suggested amending both the firm background and scope of work sections in order to reflect the board’s concerns that the firm has experience identifying a diverse and competent pool of superintendent candidates, as well as successfully placing them. Mexicotte supported Lightfoot’s suggestions.

RFP Changes: Unanticipated Events

There was some discussion of how to handle questions about unanticipated events during the search. Lightfoot suggested that the firms be required to describe conditions under which the search time frame could be modified. Board secretary Glenn Nelson asked why Stead had included a requirement for the firm to describe what they would do if a candidate leaves the search.

Stead explained that what AAPS would like to hear is that the firm has had some experience with a lead candidate withdrawing from the search. Mexicotte agreed: “We could ask for an example. Everybody’s had a search fall apart.” Roberts asked if the firm will think they fulfilled their contract if the search does not yield a viable candidate. Stead asked Comsa under what conditions the contract must be paid, and Comsa confirmed that AAPS must pay the search firm for its work, even if the outcome is initially unsuccessful. Wording was added to the RFP to make it clear that AAPS would not consider the search successful until a candidate accepts the position of permanent superintendent.

RFP Changes: Setting and Negotiating a Contract Price

The board had some discussion about how to set and negotiate the contract price. Because the RFP mentions that the firm might help with both the interim and permanent superintendent searches, trustee Susan Baskett said she’d like to ask firms to itemize their proposed costs for the two searches. Mexicotte confirmed that she would like to structure the RFP as requiring the permanent superintendent search, with the interim superintendent search priced as an optional piece of the proposal. This is sometimes called an “alternate bid.” Roberts suggested stressing that the main task is the permanent superintendent search.

Nelson asked if the board would be locked into a price as a result of the RFP, and requested that room be added to negotiate the price. Stead explained that setting the price would be a process. The firms will submit an estimate in their proposal, she said, but that could change once the board meets with them. “We might decide to be more articulate, and that we want 70 community meetings, not one,” she quipped, “so that could change their estimate.” Comsa asked that the board email their final draft to him so that he could add required legal wording. As an example, Comsa said he would add phrasing such as, “The board can accept any bid (not necessarily the lowest), reject any or all bids for any reason, … and that AAPS will select one firm and one alternative, in case we cannot work out pricing.”

Lightfoot asked if the board could speak openly yet about whether or not there was a price they did not want to go over. “Do we have a firm price?” she asked. “I’ve heard it could cost up to $80,000.” Mexicotte asked what it cost to hire a firm last time they did a superintendent search, and when no one on the board answered, David Jesse, an education reporter from, chimed in to say that the last search cost the district roughly $13,500.

Mexicotte said that the market would help to determine a price, but that the search may cost in the range of $20,000 to $35,000. Roberts added that it depends on the firm, and Mexicotte pointed out that the board may choose a higher bid if that firm will deliver a better service. Baskett argued that it may sound like a lot, “but the cost of not doing it right is just enormous.”

RFP Changes: Timeline Modifications

The board discussed the anticipated search process milestones. Mexicotte asked if the wording could be softened to make it easier for search firms to modify the timeline, and suggested that it would currently be difficult for a firm to shorten it. The front end of the timeline is the most ambitious, Mexicotte said, and then there is a long break until May. Baskett commented that she did not want to see the timeline extended past June 30. In response to Mexicotte, Roberts confirmed that his start date at AAPS had been July 1, but that he had gone back and forth between AAPS and his former district [Birmingham] a few times during a transition period. Comsa suggested adding some wording to require that if the firm wants to modify the timeline, any extensions need to be made in writing 60 days ahead of time.

RFP Changes: Student Achievement

Lightfoot suggested adding a student achievement bullet point to the context section, in addition to the discussion of student achievement in the district goals section. “I’m interested in whoever they bring us having had experience in working with student achievement,” she said. Baskett suggested saying that the district was committed to the “relentless pursuit of achievement for all students,” but Lightfoot wanted the statement to be more specific. “I’m talking about the gap,” she said. Mexicotte and Nelson stepped in to craft a statement that spoke to the “yin and yang” of community expectations regarding student achievement. On one hand, they said, excellence is achieved in many respects, while the achievement of students of color and students from lower-income households continues to require extra focus and resources.

RFP Changes: Roberts, Superintendent, or District?

The lengthiest discussion on possible changes to the RFP centered on whether the context section should be focused on the work of the superintendent specifically or the district more generally. Within that conversation, there was some debate among trustees about the degree to which Roberts should be named rather than referred to as “the superintendent.”

Lightfoot began by questioning the multiple specific references to Roberts throughout the context section. Nelson agreed, suggesting that perhaps it would be better to “change the tone from ‘Todd Roberts did these things,’ to ‘The district did these things.’” Baskett concurred as well, saying, “This has truly been a collaboration.”

Mexicotte partially disagreed. “Speaking to the strength of our superintendency is important. I like the tone of it because of what it says about us. It’s fine to take Roberts’ name out, but it should reference the superintendency.” Stead suggested that leaving in such specific references would help the firms self-select.”These are big shoes to fill,” she asserted.

Lightfoot asked what the purpose of the context section was, and Stead answered that it was to give national context to the current work of AAPS, in case an out-of-town firm wants to bid. Part of that context, she argued, is that AAPS has benefited from having a strong leadership team led by Roberts. Lightfoot continued, “It reads as though we’re hero-worshipping Dr. Roberts, and that the district was in dire straights before he came.” Baskett asked what would matter to a new superintendent in terms of the context: “Does it matter to a new person that it was [Roberts] who built the leadership team,” or just that AAPS has strong leadership? Baskett suggested that the proposed wording would be more appropriate if they were writing a farewell speech to Roberts, but was unnecessary in the RFP.

After staying quiet up until then, Roberts spoke up at this point in the discussion in favor of de-personalizing the context section. Instead of bullet points, he suggested turning the section into a narrative with the focus, “This is what you’re coming into.” When the trustees balked at the work involved in condensing and re-writing the section, Roberts advised, “I’d suggest just taking my name out, and using ‘superintendent’ where needed.”

The board decided to go through the context section bullet by bullet and examine each reference to Roberts individually in order to fine-tune its intended meaning. Most of the references were generalized to “the district” or “superintendent” but a few were kept specific to Roberts. In the end, on the last two bullet points of the section, the board was split 50-50, with vice-president Irene Patalan abstaining [she had missed the early part of the discussion, and did not feel like she could form an informed opinion], so it fell to Mexicotte to choose the final wording.

RFP Changes: Pre-Bid Meeting

Baskett asked whether the board wanted to hold a pre-bid meeting, at which potential bidders could ask questions of a committee made up of trustees and AAPS staff. There was general agreement that holding such a meeting would be a good idea, and Comsa advised the board that three or fewer board members should attend, so that they do not have quorum.

Mexicotte asked Nelson and Baskett if they would be willing to attend. They agreed to represent the board, and Baskett suggested that Comsa and Robert Allen, deputy superintendent of operations, attend from the administration in order to be able to answer any legal or financial questions that may be raised.

Board members reviewed the timeline, and selected Friday, Sept. 3 as an appropriate date for the pre-bid meeting. Comsa suggested it begin at 10 am. Baskett suggested firms could tele-conference or Skype if necessary.

Outcome: Patalan made a motion to hold a pre-bid meeting on Friday, Sept. 3, at 10 a.m., place TBD [later set as the Balas Administration Building, 2555 S. State St.] The motion was seconded by Nelson. Baskett offered a friendly amendment to add the pre-bid meeting to the RFP milestones chart in the RFP. The pre-bid meeting was approved by all present in a roll call vote.

RFP Changes: Friendly Amendments

In addition to the suggested changes that led to discussion, several amendments were offered by trustees, as indicated in parentheses, and accepted in straightforward fashion:

  • Added flexibility to the wording of RFP milestones dates, allowing steps to be completed early (Baskett);
  • Streamlined wording to be more concise (Nelson);
  • Re-worded request for references to say that they should emphasize districts similar to AAPS (Lightfoot);
  • Reduced required board attendance from “all” to “required” meetings (Nelson);
  • Added a request that the firm help the board set an appropriate compensation package (Nelson);
  • Added a description of the launching of the district preschool in the context section (Nelson);
  • Clarified that the work of the special education millage renewal will fall largely within the scope of work of the interim superintendent (Nelson);
  • Included community partnership in the context’s community engagement section (Baskett);
  • Deleted the demographic description of Ann Arbor (Mexicotte);
  • Clarified the expectation that the search would be national in scope (Roberts);
  • Changed Amy Osinski’s title to be accurate (Nelson); and
  • Defined “successful candidates” as “effective educational leaders” (Lightfoot, Nelson).

RFP Changes: Rejected Amendments

The vast majority of suggestions from trustees, as well as from Roberts and Comsa, were incorporated in the final RFP. A few, however, were not.

Lightfoot asked whether the board should specify that the firm should seek candidates from districts similar to AAPS. Baskett answered that during a prior search, one of the best candidates came from a small town with a total of only 3,000 students. Stead and Mexicotte suggested that such a suggestion would be appropriate to discuss when setting search criteria for the permanent superintendent with the chosen firm, but did not need to be included in the RFP.

Mexicotte suggested adding two sections to the context section, one on the climate work being done by the district, and one on the district’s marketing and enrollment efforts. Nelson said that those pieces were not needed for the firm to be able to bid, and suggested that that board should really think about how long it would take a firm to answer this RFP. Roberts responded that the firms will mostly be responding to the background and timeline sections, and that typically firms have a standard response. He suggested that the sections Mexicotte had proposed might be more appropriate to discuss with the selected firm when it is going out in search of candidates.

Baskett asked whether the board wanted to include a rubric in the RFP to give firms a sense of how they would make their final selection. It could help the firms focus their responses, she said, “and at some point, we need to decide on our rubric.” Mexicotte said she liked the idea of having a set of criteria for selection, but that they could be decided later, and that she would want to leave the weighting of those elements to individual trustees.

RFP Approved

Comsa said that there is some standard, legal wording he needed to add to the document. Nelson asked if the board could delegate to the president, in consultation with legal counsel, getting the document in final form. Mexicotte asked informally if it was the “board’s pleasure that Dave does what he needs to do, and then I OK the final copy, making only the most technical of changes?”

Everyone expressed agreement that Mexicotte pull together the final copy.

However, Comsa interjected, saying that the board needed to make a motion in open session to accept this document barring technical and formatting changes. So, Mexicotte asked for a formal motion.

Outcome: Stead made a motion, which Lightfoot seconded, to approve the RFP as written and amended, pending review by legal counsel, to be distributed by Aug. 27, 2010. It was approved unanimously by roll call vote of Patalan, Baskett, Nelson, Stead, Mexicotte, and Lightfoot.

Distribution of the RFP

In a follow-up discussion with Mexicotte, The Chronicle asked how the board would distribute the RFP. Mexicotte said the board will be sending the RFP to search firms recommended by the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB), and might also seek firm recommendations from other school districts that have recently engaged in a superintendent search. She said that the finalized RFP will also be posted on the AAPS website by Friday.

Mexicotte said her hope was that the RFP would result in the receipt of at least five to seven quality bids.

Roberts to Suggest Interim Appointments

Near the end of the meeting, Mexicotte asked the trustees if they would be “willing to entertain Superintendent Roberts’ suggestions for both interim superintendent candidates as well as other academic appointments that might then need to be backfilled.”

Noting that Roberts is “thoughtful and mindful,” Patalan said she would absolutely like to hear his suggestions. Lightfoot and Baskett agreed. Baskett added that she would also like Roberts to recommend compensation for such positions.

Outcome: Stead moved, and Patalan seconded, hearing Roberts’ recommendations regarding an interim superintendent and other academic offices at the next regular board meeting. The measure was approved unanimously by Lightfoot, Patalan, Baskett, Nelson, Stead, and Mexicotte.

Agenda Planning

Mexicotte told the board she would still like to meet with the executive committee to look at longer-range calendar issues. She would like to look for a date for the committee to meet just after Labor Day.

Public Commentary

Kathy Griswold, former AAPS board member, addressed the board regarding transportation concerns, a topic she has addressed previously at several prior meetings.

First, Griswold said Roberts should send a letter to the city in support of the new crosswalk proposed in the King Elementary School neighborhood for which Griswold has been advocating. Secondly, she responded to board members’ comments at the last regular board meeting regarding the delay in the Thurston driveway project.

Griswold said she had been called out at the last meeting for delaying the project by filing a complaint with the state, but that, if anything, she had speeded up the process by letting AAPS staff know that the state was lacking in necessary paperwork.

Finally, Griswold read a statement from a University of Michigan professor stating three concerns with the Thurston driveway project: 1) separating cars and buses should not be a top priority since it’s not the main source of risk; 2) the proposed design resembles airline drop-offs, which might not work for K-5 students; and 3) adding more pavement is expensive, and might not solve the congestion problem.

Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice president Irene Patalan (arriving at 7:45 p.m.), secretary Glenn Nelson, treasurer Christine Stead, and trustees Susan Baskett and Simone Lightfoot. Also present as a non-voting member was Todd Roberts, AAPS superintendent.

Absent: Trustee Andy Thomas.

Next regular meeting: Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010, 7 p.m. at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, 4th floor board room, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]

One Comment

  1. By Kathy Griswold
    August 27, 2010 at 7:41 pm | permalink

    Thanks for covering my comments at public commentary. For clarification, the UM professor’s concerns were for a similar driveway design proposed for King Elementary School in 2008. The Thurston driveway design is very similar and has the same pedestrian – vehicle conflict where young students are required to cross a lane of vehicular traffic to get to the school.