The Palo Alto school district's search for a new superintendent will be slightly different this time around, with the added involvement of community members and staff who will meet the final candidates and serve in an advisory capacity to the school board.
Board members agreed to create an advisory group during a special meeting Tuesday morning with the firm that will oversee the process, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates.
They settled on the advisory group as a way to balance their desire for public engagement with privacy for candidates who are acting superintendents elsewhere. The proposal came from Trustee Todd Collins, who suggested the board mirror how the City Council handles its direct hires.
In hiring previous city managers, internal auditors and city attorneys, Collins said the council has nominated community members to form an advisory group and a separate staff group. Both interviewed finalists and then provided pros and cons rather than specific candidate preferences to the council.
School board members agreed to a similar process. They will each appoint at least two people to the committee, which will not have any voting power and will meet with finalists confidentially. The board did not yet decide whether there will be separate groups for community members and staff or if they would serve together on one committee.
The Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates consultants in charge of the district's search said Tuesday that there are benefits and drawbacks to forming such a group, but that they have done it in other districts. Board members selected committee members who were asked to sign confidentiality agreements before interviewing finalists, said Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates consultant Carolyn McKennan. Yet they warned that some candidates might not take the risk of a process that includes meeting members of the public, even under the promise of confidentiality, and risk it negatively impacting their current job.
In previous superintendent searches in Palo Alto Unified, firms collected public input through surveys, focus groups and meetings but community members and staff did not meet any candidate until the very end of the process, when a small group of school representatives and board members would visit the finalist's school. In 2014, for example, board members, district staff, union and parent representatives traveled to Illinois to meet Max McGee and staff at his former school.
Most board members agreed Tuesday that this late-stage site visit is more of a "dog and pony show" than a valuable source of decision-making information. Collins again proposed the board follow in the City Council's footsteps, and instead send a small group to conduct confidential visits and report back to the board.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell, who participated in the site visits for both McGee and his predecessor Kevin Skelly, said they provided some value. They learned information during the visits that hadn't come up before, particularly in organic conversations walking around the school.
"We found stuff out ... that didn't change the decision but changed what needed to be in place to support that candidate," she said.
The board did not make a decision on the site visit; they plan to discuss it further at their Jan. 16 meeting, then appoint the advisory committee after that.
The board also agreed to advertise for the position nationally, rather than just in California, for an additional $3,000.
"People are already calling," McKennan told the board.
In the new year, the search firm will begin to hold focus groups with teachers, staff, parents, students, community members and other stakeholders. The consultants said they ask each group the same questions: what are the district's strengths and challenges; what are the desired characteristics in a new superintendent, both personal and professional; and if they have anyone to recommend for the job. The consultants will also interview each board member individually.
The firm will also collect input via a survey that will be available both online and in paper and in English, Mandarin and Spanish.
The consultants will analyze all of the feedback and create a "leadership profile" to present at a board meeting.
The board unanimously approved a contract with Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates on Tuesday. The three consultants assigned to Palo Alto Unified are McKennan, Jacki Horejs and David Cash. All are former superintendents.