After the SMSD Board of Education rehired Ray and Associates – the search firm who led the process which hired Dr. Jim Hinson – school board candidates, advocacy group leaders and area residents are concerned with the transparency of the superintendent search process.
The board began planning the search process with R&A at its Sept. 6 meeting where members discussed stakeholder groups, a community-wide online survey and whether or not to keep the final three superintendent candidates confidential.
“There is no way this board can make a selection without the telling the public who the top three candidates are,” school board candidate Heather Ousley said. “There’s no way. There will be pitchforks and torches outside of the [Center for Academic Achievement].”
The board debated whether releasing the names of the final candidates would cause a candidate to withdraw or if transparency with the public was a greater concern. Board president Dr. Craig Denny said the board may analyze candidates R&A presents to them in an executive session, a meeting not open to the public. The pool may be too large to consider in public, and the candidates have an expectation of confidentiality, he said.
“I think the discussion would occur in an open meeting some time after [an executive session] as to ‘OK, what do we think of the candidate pool? Is it deep enough? Do we think that some of our favorites might drop out if we tell them we’re going to publish [their] name?’” Denny said. “And so [releasing the final candidates’ names will] be a board decision probably made on facts that we don’t have right now.”
According to Megan Peters, a member of parent advocacy group Education First Shawnee Mission, the public grew to distrust the board due to a lack of communication between Hinson, the board and the community during Hinson’s tenure as superintendent.
Life-long Johnson County resident and former SMSD parent Anne Pritchett questioned why the board picked R&A again because their search process hired Hinson, whom she described as damaging.
“For the life of me I don’t understand why they trust this search firm again,” Pritchett said. “It seems like you’d look elsewhere if you didn’t like the last person they gave you.”
From what Ousley has “heard on the doorstep,” people need to be fully informed of the reasoning behind the district’s decisions, something they didn’t feel they got under Hinson. Without insight into the district’s choices, they were unhappy, she said.
“It would be nice if we were paying $25,000 [to Ray and Associates] and saying ‘OK, we’ve paid this, and we know that we’re going to get a quality product,’ but I believe that we do not have any luxury of stepping back and allowing someone else to just do it,” Ousley said. “We set ourselves up to be doing an enormous amount of watch-dogging, and when systems work right, it shouldn’t need quite that level of effort.”
During the Sept. 6 meeting, board members noted the public’s high stake in the search and the importance of keeping the community involved throughout the process.
To include the community, the district will send out a link to an online survey asking about the qualities and characteristics responders hope to see in their future superintendent. The survey will be open starting Friday and will remain available until Oct. 20.
R&A will also meet with “stakeholder groups,” people with direct interest in the new superintendent. Stakeholder groups – teachers, students, taxpayers, National Education Association-Shawnee Mission leaders, legislators, etc. – will be welcome to attend either invitational or open meetings where they’ll discuss what they’d like to see in a new superintendent.
R&A will use feedback from these groups and online survey responses to craft a profile which they’ll report back to the district on Oct. 30.
“Everybody should have a chance to weigh in one way or another on what they want to see in a new superintendent,” Denny said.
School board candidate Mary Sinclair said she wants the district to publicize a schedule for the stakeholder meetings detailing who is invited and how those people were selected to be part of the search. Sinclair, a graduate professor who teaches research methods at KU and UMKC, said the characteristics of the stakeholders will give insight into how relevant their feedback is. Who each group is and why they were included are the two pieces of information which will tell her if the community’s voices have been heard, she said.
Full disclosure of information is an aspect board candidates and advocacy organizations agreed they want to see during the superintendent search.
Sinclair wants to see all superintendent-related information “three clicks away” on the SMSD website. NEA-SM president Linda Sieck thinks the website should have a separate tab for board-related documents. Ousley hopes to see all special board meetings live-streamed.
Groups such as Education First Shawnee Mission have also chimed in with specific requests for the search process. Peters said Education First reached out to R&A voicing teachers’ concerns that they may lose their jobs if they speak out. R&A responded that it is not their practice to have supervisors in the room during teacher focus group sessions.
Ousley encourages all community members, but especially students, to remain active during the search process in order to have their vision for the future heard.
“This is your guys’ district,” Ousley said. “So when you walk out of there with your diploma, that diploma is worth whatever the worth of the district is. You will be listened to if you’re loud. Students absolutely have the ability to shape the outcome of this selection process and all they have to do is speak up.”