AAPS Search Firm Choice: Down to Two

Consultant for superintendent search to be hired Wednesday

Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education search firm interviews (Sept. 22, 2010): The Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) school board has narrowed its short list of potential consultants to help with its superintendent search to two firms: Ray & Associates Inc. of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and McPherson & Jacobson LLC of Omaha, Nebraska. Both firms have significant expertise in conducting national superintendent searches.

During a seven-hour meeting held at the Balas Administration Building, the board discussed selection criteria, set their interview process, interviewed five firms, and decided to check the references of two of them. A theme that emerged throughout the day was the challenge of conducting a search in an “open state” such as Michigan, where candidates’ names will be made public early in the process as a requirement of the Open Meetings Act.

The board is expected to make a final selection at its regular board meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 29. The search firm will be seeking a replacement for outgoing superintendent Todd Roberts, who announced his departure in mid-August. AAPS deputy superintendent Robert Allen was recently selected to serve as interim superintendent when Roberts leaves within the next two weeks.

Selection Criteria

Board president Deb Mexicotte opened the meeting by distributing a rubric for the interview which trustees could use to rank firms during the interviews. The selection criteria had been compiled by the board secretary based on input e-mailed to her by individual trustees. The criteria included:

  • familiarity with AAPS and similar districts;
  • demonstrated success conducting national searches;
  • demonstrated success recruiting and placing candidates from Michigan and neighboring areas;
  • ability to engage the community in the search process; and
  • experience of the team assigned to AAPS, including facilitation experience and involvement after placement.

Mexicotte encouraged board members to use the rubric, but also to amend it to suit their needs or to weight categories as they saw fit.

Trustees briefly discussed who would pose which questions during the interview. It was determined that after each presentation, Mexicotte would facilitate questioning using a round robin approach. She planned to choose a trustee at random, and then work around the table, allowing each trustee to ask one initial question, followed by additional questions as time allowed.

Trustee Susan Baskett asked Dave Comsa, AAPS assistant superintendent for human resources and legal services, for clarification regarding confidentiality during the superintendent selection process. Comsa clarified that as soon as a search firm presents the names of any candidates to the board, those names are public information. Mexicotte added that names must be brought to a full, open session, not an executive or closed session of the board.

Ann Arbor Public Schools trustees

Members of the Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education discuss the selection of a search firm at their Sept. 22 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

This information led to a brief discussion among trustees about the number of names they would like to see presented to them by the firm they choose, and at what stage in the process. There was some debate about the merits of seeing the entire list of applicants, or reviewing large numbers of resumes. Trustees Simone Lightfoot and Glenn Nelson expressed some interest in knowing who applied, beyond just the applicants recommended by the chosen firm. “I don’t have absolute trust,” Nelson admitted.

Trustee Christine Stead countered that view, suggesting that to review resumes of all applicants is not the best use of the board’s time. “One of the major reasons to hire a firm is to reduce workload,” she said, arguing that “if we won’t allow a firm to vet [candidates], then we shouldn’t hire one.”

Comsa pointed out that the hired search firm would handle this issue based on input from the board, and the conversation was put on hold until a firm was selected.

Trustee Andy Thomas then questioned what the expected outcome was of the day’s meeting, and Mexicotte suggested that after the interviews, she would ask trustees to list their top three firms. With those pooled rankings, Mexicotte said, the board would then decide which firms to eliminate, and on which to check references. Comsa added that that board should not narrow the field to a single firm, as the final decision should be made during a regular, open meeting.


Board secretary Amy Osinski invited representatives of each of the firms to the main conference room at Balas at their appointed time. Each firm’s representatives presented for 20-30 minutes on why they would be the right fit for AAPS specifically, and were then interviewed by board members for an additional 20-30 minutes. There was a short break between each interview.

Interview: Ray & Associates

Ray & Associates sent three representatives to the interview. Their presentation touted the firm’s experience involving the community in developing a candidate profile. Calling the community meeting the “bread and butter” of the search process, they guaranteed that everything they gathered from participants would be incorporated into the search, and suggested using surveys as well as holding forums.

Their presentation also touched on the difficulty of recruiting in an “open” state – a reference to Michigan’s Open Meetings Act. Candidates may not want the fact that they’ve applied to be made public while they are still on a slate of semi-finalists. They said they believed it is part of their job to convince candidates why applying would be worth it, regardless of the professional risks. They asserted that they had “never produced a slate of candidates from which the board could not choose a successful candidate.”

Trustees asked about the timing of salary determination in the selection process; how many stakeholder meetings would be held; how the firm would deal with community members skeptical to participate; whether they’ve had an unsuccessful search; the typical number of semifinalists presented to the board; whether the firm could identify candidates and recruit effectively from within Michigan; the firm’s suggested search timeline; and which other school districts they saw as similar to AAPS. They also requested curriculum vita for all members of the team who would be assigned to AAPS.

Representatives of Ray & Associates recommended determining salary early in the process, and holding a large number of stakeholder meetings – some open forums, and some by invitation only. Regarding skepticism about participating, they said they would stress to the community how the AAPS board is unique in its commitment to soliciting public input. Their description of an ineffective search was in Paterson, N.J., where trust issues among the 18-person, governor-appointed board made the process “artificial.”

They expressed confidence they could produce competitive local as well as national candidates, and touted their connections to roughly 400 local associates. They suggested bringing a slate of 8-12 semi-finalists on paper to the board, along with a metric to evaluate their resumes. They also suggested that although the firm could recommend only the top five candidates to interview, which has been a model used in other “sunshine states,” they felt that option gives the search firm too much input into the selection. Regarding a timeline, they suggested starting a search in October and ending by January, with the rationale that the sooner an incoming superintendent can announce he or she is leaving a current position, the better chance the district they are leaving has to find a good replacement.

Representatives of the firm demonstrated extensive knowledge of AAPS in their answers – referring to the district’s fund balance, its strategic plan, and its targets for increasing achievement and reducing achievement gaps. They compared AAPS to Ames, Iowa; Montgomery, Virginia; and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Interview: Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates

The presentation by Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates stressed their extensive network as an attribute that sets them apart from other firms. They sent two representatives to meet with the board, and noted that they have 120 associates nationwide, as well as connections to an organization called Suburban Schools Superintendents (SSS). They also touted their ability to use the firm’s contacts to cross-reference candidate references, and “uncover the real person.”

The Hazard representatives used most of their time to review in some detail the steps of the selection process and the various degrees of service they could offer AAPS – national, national plus, or basic. They explained the subcontracting they do with ECRA Group to conduct background research on candidates.

Lastly, they reviewed their guarantee that, if hired, they would not recruit the new AAPS superintendent for five years, and will redo the search for free if the new superintendent leaves within a year.

Trustees asked about the firm’s commitment to diversity; target participants for community engagement; how it recruited candidates; cost; and customization of services.

Hazard offered to add a third, part-time, “minority” consultant to their team to demonstrate their celebration of diversity. They said they would work very hard to get minority candidates, and focused on the racial composition of the student body as justification for a minority superintendent.

Their response regarding community input was in reference to their contract with AAPS, which would allow for two consultants to spend two days in the district collecting community input, based on groups identified by the board. They did not suggest an open forum, but instead specific focus groups.

Hazard asserted that other firms do not search for those candidates not actively seeking work, while they do. They reiterated how their contacts with the SSS would be able to lead them to candidates untapped by other firms.

The firm agreed to customize a set of services for AAPS, which could allocate greater resources on parts of the search that the district would like to emphasize. Regarding their higher cost (roughly $6,000 more than other comparable firms), Hazard’s representatives argued that they simply spend more time on the search than other firms, and that there is an extra cost associated with doing a national search.

Interview: David J. Kinsella & Associates

Kinsella began his presentation by stating that he was a little nervous to present to the board. After introducing himself, he praised the district’s strategic plan, and described how the main challenge of the next superintendent would be to move the plan forward. He described his strength as “making a good fit:” listening very carefully to clients to create a very specific candidate profile, targeting sources to find candidates, and measuring them against the position specification.

Kinsella asserted that he has a vested interest in this selection, as he is an involved member of the local community. He acknowledged that the board might be concerned about his lack of experience doing superintendent searches (he has done one, 30 years ago), but that the search process is the same. Kinsella also noted that he is not barred from going into any districts, as some firms might be if they had recently placed candidates in those locations. He asserted that his confidence in his ability to successfully evaluate leadership characteristics of potential candidates should allay any concerns the board has about his qualifications.

The board asked Kinsella to elaborate on his recruiting strategies, including reaching out to women and minorities; review the steps in his proposed selection process; give an example of a placement he made “taking a company from good to great”; describe whether or not AAPS having a strong strategic plan could pose a risk for a new superintendent; and offer an opinion on whether or not the district should consider non-traditional candidates.

Kinsella acknowledged that he did not have the same experience recruiting superintendents as the other firms, and would rely on input from the board as to which communities to target. He also mentioned he would contact organizations such as the National Alliance of Black School Superintendents (which evolved to become the National Alliance of Black School Educators), and the Urban Association of Superintendents.

He said he would “try to find a diverse slate, but at the end of the day, you’re looking for the best person.”

Kinsella described his selection process in some detail, focusing on the in-depth research and interviewing he does. He described his successful placement of a corporate executive who moved his company from loss to gain, and described how he would look for similar leadership qualities in AAPS superintendent candidates.

As for any risk posed by the possession of a strong strategic plan, Kinsella said that any candidate who would want to change the direction of the strategic plan would be a mismatch, though he would want to find candidates who could “take it to the next level.” He said that whether or not to include non-traditional candidates would be completely a board decision, but that he would be open to it.

Board members also asked Kinsella how many candidates he would present to them, and whether he has experience with keeping candidates confidential early in the process.

Kinsella answered that he would usually present a slate of three to five candidates, and that he sees his job as narrowing the field considerably for the board. He stated that he believes working with potential candidates to determine whether or not to make their interest in the position public is a major task for a recruiter. Regarding confidentiality, Kinsella assured the board that he would do as much of the vetting as possible up front so candidates are not exposed to the board too early. He asserted, “I would assume responsibility to keep [candidates] in the shadows of the public as long as we could.”

Interview: Michigan Association of School Boards

Representatives of the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB) spent the first third of their presentation describing changes to the group’s organizational processes, including the addition of a unique “database profile matching system.” They then described how a successful search will lead to the new superintendent having good community support as well as board support, and how building community support is a function of the input process. Finally, MASB staff gave a lengthy explanation of how they would post the open superintendent position, as well as recruit passive candidates. They then went on to describe the interview process they would follow when selecting candidates.

Trustees asked MASB what prompted the changes in the organization; whether they were biased toward in-state candidates; whether or not they have worked to recruit passive candidates in the past; when they would recommend setting search criteria; what the experience level was of each member of the MASB team that would be assigned to AAPS. Trustees also asked about the creativity of MASB; and about the effect of the Open Meetings Act on the search process.

MASB representatives explained that their organization needed to change its image to capture a larger market share. They noted that MASB works with other state school board associations to share information, and that MASB’s track record shows that many searches have included a large number of out-of-state candidates. They skimmed lightly over answering whether or not they had successfully recruited passive candidates in the past, noting that they communicate with a large number of school administrators. They suggested not setting search criteria until five or six weeks into the process, allowing MASB to gather data from all AAPS constituencies.

MASB sent four representatives to its interview with the board: Dick Durbin, the director of superintendent search services; Bill Brewer, a recent addition to the team from the private sector; Mike Emlaw, a senior consultant who worked with AAPS on its last superintendent search; and Kelly Jones, who Durbin initially introduced as the board’s “primary contact,” but who did not participate in the presentation.

After Durbin, Emlaw, and Brewer answered the question about how many searches they had been a part of (the most was eight – by Emlaw), AAPS trustee Christine Stead addressed Durbin directly, pointing out that he should not have invited Jones if she had no role in the presentation. Stead then questioned Jones directly about what her role would be in the search. Jones answered that she is the office manager, and that this is her first time attending a presentation.

MASB representatives responded that they could engage the community creatively by translating online surveys into other languages, and bringing interpreters to open forums if necessary. They also reiterated how MASB’s new online application capability and profile-matching tool were unique in the search industry.

Trustees questioned the effect of having access to an online application system, in which all AAPS board members would be able to review every application. They wondered if it would make an unnecessarily large number of possible applicants public. MASB representatives answered that they believed the Open Meetings Act allows trustees to review applications in confidence, as long as they do not deliberate. Then, when choosing candidates to interview in open session, it would be appropriate for the board to reference arbitrarily-assigned candidate numbers rather than names. MASB representatives stated that, even with board members having full access to all applications, none of the candidates’ names would be made public until they were invited to interview.

Along the same lines, trustee Glenn Nelson questioned whether AAPS was offering high enough salaries, given that AAPS had not hired a sitting superintendent during its last three superintendent searches, but instead hired deputy superintendents from other districts. Emlaw answered that it’s not about the money, but the law. The public nature of a search under the OMA, he argued, causes sitting superintendents not to want to risk upsetting their constituents by applying for other positions. On the other hand, to a sitting deputy or associate superintendent, the application poses less professional risk, since it is socially acceptable to want to continue moving up the professional ladder.

Interview: McPherson & Jacobson LLC

McPherson & Jacobson sent a single presenter to the interview, Bill Dean. Dean began by introducing himself personally and professionally, and then gave a brief review of the proposal his firm had submitted. The proposal had been specifically tailored to AAPS, and included sections on the phases of the proposed search process; descriptions of the team that would be assigned to AAPS; newspaper articles showing the transparency of the process used by the firm, and how that has motivated stakeholders to participate; a list of all female or minority placements made in other searches; and a list of all searches done by the firm in the past five years. Dean concluded his presentation by asserting how Ann Arbor is special, and AAPS needs someone who understands the city’s uniqueness and who will be able to move its strategic plan forward.

The board asked how McPherson would recruit to Michigan, given the state’s dismal economic position nationally; how they would find candidates in Michigan and nearby states; how they could creatively engage the community; how they would find candidates with vision regarding closing the achievement gap; whether they would recommend non-traditional candidates; what makes them stand out against other firms; at what point in the process they set salary; how many candidates they would present to the board; and whether or not there would be any people of color on the team of consultants assigned to work with AAPS.

Dean was confident that the firm would be able to find candidates willing to work for AAPS, and reassured the board that the special culture of Ann Arbor would be a draw. He also reviewed successful searches in other states where McPherson previously had no presence. “We grow connections,” he said. “We are unafraid of picking up the phone – you have to be kind of forward in this job.”

Regarding community engagement, Dean reviewed the firm’s commitment to transparency, and how testimonials from other engaged community members really helped to convince people to participate.

As for finding candidates with experience closing achievement gaps, Dean suggested that the board should request directly that candidates present evidence of what they have done to close the achievement gap in their districts. Dean mentioned being very impressed with AAPS Community High School as a model for how to educate children non-traditionally. He said he would be comfortable recruiting a candidate that has a different sense of how to deliver education, and that if the board was interested, he would work with them to find non-traditional candidates.

Salary would be set early in the process, Dean said, adding that his goal would be to bring a short list of six to eight candidates to the board for its review.

Dean also acknowledged that the three members of the team McPherson assigned to AAPS were all white males. He explained that this team was chosen because it consists of the consultants with the most experience, but that if the board wanted to have a person of color on the search team, the firm could accommodate that interest.

Post-Interview Debriefing

Deb Mexicotte asked board members to participate in a straw poll, voting for their top three firms, which they did. The results showed Ray and MASB with six votes each, McPherson with five votes, Hazard with four votes, and Kinsella with no votes.

Christine Stead, Glenn Nelson

AAPS trustees Christine Stead and Glenn Nelson during a Sept. 22 meeting to interview potential consultants for a superintendent search.

Mexicotte then asked trustees to argue for their top two choices.

Andy Thomas began, saying that he was most impressed with McPherson for being committed to the values held by AAPS, and for having done its homework before the interview. Ray, he said, proved that they really understood the community involvement piece. Thomas also mentioned being concerned with MASB’s approach to selecting candidates.

Glenn Nelson said he would put Ray at the top of his list, and appreciated the diversity of the team they brought. Secondly, he’d choose MASB, though he was concerned about the lack of experience on their team. Nelson also noted that he was not impressed with Hazard’s emphasis on suburban schools, but they were his third choice.

Christine Stead strongly preferred McPherson. She appreciated their organization, and that they provided proof of the transparency of their search process by including newspaper articles in their proposal. She also noted that the firm’s fees were reasonable.

For her second choice, Stead said she would choose Ray or Hazard. In her opinion, Hazard articulated network capabilities better, but Ray fared better in terms of showing a commitment to diversity.

Calling parts of their presentation “inarticulate,” MASB’s approach greatly concerned Stead. She argued that they would expect too much from the board, and that “the team seem like they assembled themselves in the hallway on the way in here.” She also expressed that their commitment to diversity seemed superficial.

Susan Baskett put McPherson first, and Ray second, though she noted that they lacked creativity. Regarding Hazard, she noted, “They did nothing for me. I wouldn’t want to put them in front of my neighbors.”

Simone Lightfoot chose MASB for its “local flavor,” its knowledge of the Open Meetings Act, its articulation of changes within its organization, and its new database matching system. Responding to Stead’s concerns about the amount of work MASB would expect from the board, she noted that the board would likely end up with the same candidates out of their applicant pool whether or not trustees reviewed the applications online first. To her, that was optional.

Lightfoot liked Ray’s show of diversity, and noted that McPherson’s response that they could add a person of color to the team if AAPS requested it did not work for her.

Irene Patalan was happy with the three largest firms, and listed McPherson as her first choice, and Hazard as her second. She noted that in Hazard’s presentation, “there was a lot of Michigan going on in what they had to say.”

Mexicotte was most impressed with McPherson and Ray. She felt McPherson was most responsive to the board’s request for proposals (RFP), and that she would not have any doubt that they would be able to produce a good pool of candidates. Ray’s candidate handling, community engagement, and diversity impressed her. In distant third place, Mexicotte said, she would consider MASB. She felt like the team was not well-integrated, and that they should not have brought a member who didn’t need to be here. Mexicotte also noted that the newness of their management was concerning to her. Finally, she noted that while finding local candidates might be a strength of MASB, she had no concerns with her top two choices being able to find qualified candidates in Michigan.

Seeing that the ranking of each trustee’s top two candidates led to McPherson and Ray having the most votes in that round, Mexicotte suggested considering only those two firms at the next regular board meeting. Lightfoot and Nelson, who had shown the most interest in MASB, agreed to yield to their colleagues’ concerns regarding the firm. There was general agreement to focus the selection on those two firms.

Mexicotte looked to Dave Comsa for advice on conducting reference checks. Comsa suggested that any information gleaned from the reference checks needed to be presented to the board in open session, and reminded the board that no deliberation could take place before then.

Mexicotte, Baskett, and Stead volunteered to function as a sub-quorum group to conduct the reference checks together, by speakerphone, so they could all hear the same responses. They will then report their findings from their notes at the next regular board meeting. Mexicotte asked Comsa if there was a set of reference-check questions they should use, and Comsa suggested that they simply ask people that the firms listed as references to confirm the things the firms said about themselves.

Some trustees expressed interest in having the two firms being considered respond to some follow-up questions in writing before a final decision is made. It was decided that individual trustees would submit any questions they had to board secretary Amy Osinski by Friday at noon, and that she would forward them to McPherson and Ray for written response by Tuesday. Mexicotte requested that Osinski call the other three firms to tell them they are no longer under consideration.

Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice president Irene Patalan, secretary Glenn Nelson, treasurer Christine Stead, and trustees Susan Baskett, Simone Lightfoot, and Andy Thomas.

Next regular meeting: Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010, 7 p.m. at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, 4th floor board room, 343 S. Fifth Ave.

One Comment

  1. By Jack F.
    September 27, 2010 at 12:51 pm | permalink

    Amazing how much of this meeting was focused on dodging and dancing around the Open Meetings Act. And how, once again, an Ann Arbor public body does everything to torpedo any local Michigan firm. Amazing…it goes on and on. And Ms. Stead’s confrontation of the female employee and putting her on the spot is nothing short of shameful.