Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, an Illinois-based leadership firm that has conducted numerous superintendent searches in California school districts, will oversee the process for selecting Palo Alto Unified's top leader.
The school board voted unanimously to hire the firm on Tuesday night after hearing public presentations from four companies. Board members said they valued the firm's experience in California and with Basic Aid districts like Palo Alto Unified.
The board is looking for a permanent replacement for former superintendent Max McGee, who resigned in September. (McGee now works for Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates as the firm's Midwest president, but board members said at a previous meeting they didn't think this constitutes a conflict of interest.)
Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, whose West Coast regional office is located in Palo Alto, has conducted searches for nearby districts including the Ravenswood City School District, Cupertino Union School District, Sequoia Union High School District, Woodside Elementary School District and Portola Valley Elementary School District, according to a proposal from the firm.
The other three firms the district considered were Ray and Associates; Leadership Associates (which conducted the district's last two superintendent searches); and McPherson & Jacobson.
After they heard the presentations and asked the firms questions, board members shared reference checks they had done for each company and then identified their top two choices. Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates ultimately came out on top, followed by McPherson & Jacobson, which is the California School Board Association's search firm.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell voiced concern about a recent placement McPherson & Jacobson made in the Pleasanton Unified School District. The Pleasanton school board fired the new superintendent there after only six months, costing the district a $256,000 severance package and the price of a new search. Several months later, the East Bay Times reported that the superintendent had been investigated for sexual harassment.
The new search in Pleasanton was conducted by Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates.
Board member Todd Collins called other school districts listed as references for Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates; they all said their searches were "satisfactory."
Carolyn McKennan, the firm's West Coast regional president, and associate Jacki Horejs, both retired superintendents, described their processes for seeking input from community members, including conducting focus groups, interviews and an online survey, as well as "aggressive" recruiting strategies. Approximately 75 percent of the candidates ultimately selected by school boards were people the firm specifically recruited for that district.
The two women, along with a third consultant from the firm, David Cash, will be running the search.
Costs of the firm's services include a $23,500 consulting fee, $1,950 to $5,000 for advertising the job, $1,105 to $1,950 per candidate for background checks and $2,200 for the consultants' travel expenses, among other fees, according the firm's proposal. The total cost will be a fixed price.
One of the main differences between Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates and McPherson & Jacobson was their position on an open versus closed process. While McPherson & Jacobson said they prefer to keep the entire process open to the public, including releasing names of final candidates, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates recommended against it.
Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates said they have run searches both ways, but some candidates — especially sitting superintendents — might not take the risk of a public process in case they don't get the job. In past searches, the firm also found a midway point: forming an advisory committee of stakeholders to meet with finalists in private and then provide feedback to the board.
The board has not yet decided if it will conduct a national or statewide search for its next superintendent, but its members have emphasized that candidates must understand educational, legal and financial requirements unique to California. In a response to a series of questions from the board submitted before the meeting, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates recommended the board "cast its net as broadly as possible to see if the best candidate might be secured from a national search."
Candidates must also be prepared to work in a high-performing district with a highly engaged community, President Terry Godfrey repeatedly said Tuesday. The firms described Palo Alto Unified as an attractive, prestigious district that should have no trouble bringing in high-quality candidates. Several firms also referenced issues that have made headlines in the district, from a recent youth suicide cluster to reports of sexual misconduct.
Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates said the biggest challenge in hiring a superintendent here will be "narrowing the field of potentially qualified candidates by matching where PAUSD is now and where you want to be in five years or more."
By contrast, Bill Huwett of McPherson & Jacobson said the district's largest challenge will be to find an experienced superintendent who is well-versed at "solving problems publicly and can build trust and respect in doing so."
"Some candidates will look at that as a barrier and some candidates will look at it as a thrill," he said.
The board will approve a contract with Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates at its Tuesday meeting.
In the coming months, the district plans to send out information on how to provide individual input and when open forums will be held for the search. Information will also be posted on a dedicated district webpage.