Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Importance of Being Earnest About Vetting Superintendent Candidates

Recently, I've been forwarded a couple of articles about some spectacularly failed searches by Ray & Associates (the superintendent search firm Ann Arbor Public Schools is using), and reading these documents one cannot help but be struck by the importance of:

a) thoroughly checking up on everything that the applicants say in their applications, and not relying on a search firm to do that all for us, and

b) paying site visits to the locations where people have served before, talking to people they have worked with, and to parents, and to people who worked for them. . .

Here is some background:

1. There was a big scandal in Kentucky in 2007 when Ray & Associates conducted a search for the schools chief for the Kentucky Board of Education. They chose a woman named Barbara Erwin to be statewide schools chief, but it turned out that there were things on her resume/application that were not true, and she ended up withdrawing at the last minute. Then the school board refused to pay Ray & Associates. . .

In an article in Kentucky Schools News & Commentary: A web-based destination for aggregated news and commentary related to public school education in Kentucky and related topics, the following information is recorded: 

When the Kentucky Board of Education ratified Dr. Barbara Erwin as Kentucky's next Commissioner of Education, her previously "confidential candidate file" became a public document.Mark Hebert from WHAS got a copy a couple of weeks ago and had already prepared me for what I was going to see; a very one-sided sales job that is much more of a promotional piece than it is a critical, or balanced, look at the candidate.It accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative...  
The sum of the material paints a glowing picture of Dr. Erwin's career and credentials...
They summarized Erwin's attributes including: hiring quality people; strong interpersonal skills; work ethic; outstanding oral and written communicator; cited her numerous presentations at state and national level; keeps the board well-informed; collaborative leadership; encourages everyone to speak his or her mind; believes information is power and she gives power to everyone; passionate; and assertive.
In fact, I couldn't find a single sentence that might give a Kentucky school board member pause.There was one sentence: "Dr. Erwin's school board was split on a number of issues and remains deeply entrenched in controversy regarding district boundaries." ...but blame is laid on the board; never Erwin. 
No wonder the Kentucky Board of Education felt secure in their choice, despite warnings from others.There is no evidence that Ray & Associates looked at the public record from newspapers or any outside sources representing the public interest. Maybe they did. Maybe they shared information verbally and privately with board members. But, it sure doesn't show up in the report. 
The Ray & Associates Website describes their process this way:
Background Investigations: Ray and Associates, Inc. makes every effort to ensure our clients that the candidates recommended for consideration are exactly who they say they are. Careful screening and background checks are essential to this process. Our firm provides our clients with detailed information on each semi-finalist in addition to all other application materials. This information relies upon many hours of research and investigation. No attempts are made to conceal anything from our clients. In fact, our clients often remark that they are very impressed with how much they actually learn about candidates before ever meeting them. 
Yesterday, Kentucky School News and Commentary spoke with Dr. Gary Ray, of Ray & Associates on the record. 
Kentucky School News and Commentary: I'm not sure if you are aware that Dr. Erwin listed some things on her resume that have not been verifiable. 
Dr Gary Ray: "I'm not sure where you get that. We had a couple questions; some people might have said that, and everything's been verified as much as possible, I mean they have been accurate, so I'd like to know a little bit more specific what you're asking about." 
KSN&C: Sure, well... 
Ray: "I mean, you know, just to make that statement wouldn't necessarily be a; that's a pretty broad statement, so I'd like to know just exactly what you're asking about."(So KSN&C listed ...Claimed to be a presenter at the 2006 Triple I ConferenceClaimed AASA Exec Board 10 yearsClaimed she was still on the Scottsdale Chamber of CommerceHas not yet explained how she received an Indiana teaching certificatebefore her IU diplomaClaims of post doctoral degrees from USC and Columbia.) 
KSN&C: Is that something you would typically do; to do degree verifications? 
Ray: "Yeah, we would be able to do that. I tell ya, the person I could have you talk with, because he has verified her resume and has done a good job in that regard, would be Dr. Don Cusmo, and if I can get your name and number, I'll just have Don call you."(We exchanged contact information) 
Ray: Have you spoken with her? 
KSN&C: I have not. I have written to her but haven't heard back yet.(We exchanges pleasantries about the time of year and how busy everyone was) 
KSN&C: Let me make you aware of another thing that concerns me, but that I also have not been able to confirm yet. One of the items she had to complete on her background check as part of her application in Kentucky was whether or not she had ever been involved in litigation. And I didn't know if you all were aware that she was sued by [a] board [member] in Arizona, but yet, she marked that she had not been [sued], on her application. 
Ray: Uh huh, well, I think there's a story that goes with that... I'm pretty comfortable that she's OK with that... 
KSN&C: So you guys are aware of that. 
Ray: "Sure. You know people can make claims all the time..." (and he told the story of a case where a reporting error got into print where a claim of a lawsuit just wasn't true.) Understand, these things, kind of, not always are on the surface, what they might appear to be." 
KSN&C: Sure. I certainly understand that and that's why it's so important to verify this stuff. This is an important position for us in Kentucky and my concern is that there appear to be a few of these and that's an uncomfortable pattern. 
Ray: "Yeah, I think you'll find when it's all done, it will shake out very well."~Is it possible the Erwin was not actually sued in Arizona? This seemed highly unlikely. The Arizona Republic made at least a half dozen references to the suit. (Emphases in purple are added.)

2. I might feel that was just one (albeit highly visible) mistake from Ray & Associates, if not for the fact that a search for "Ray & Associates" on that Kentucky News website pulls up these articles about problems in Prince Georges County, MD and Loveland, CO:

Sep 13, 2008
KSN&C readers will recall that it was Ray & Associates who failed to uncover numerous fantasies on Barbara Erwin's resume during Kentucky's search for an Education Commissioner. That failure led to a refusal by the ...
Sep 24, 2008
It is too bad for Prince Georges County that Ray & Associates - having completed whatever research they were obliged to do for the school district - did not discover the resume errors. But they apparently didn't. As we have ...
Mar 15, 2008
...but there is yet another school board out there feeling just a little burned by the advice they received from Ray & Associates - the same search firm whose assurances lead Kentucky's Board of Education down the primrose ...

3. Meanwhile, in Tacoma, Washington, their News Tribune had a March 8, 2008 article entitled, "Same Firm, but Better Results Expected." In Tacoma, at that time, as with Ann Arbor now, the superintendent had left (in Tacoma's case, it was very clear what the issue was) and because it was within the two years time frame, they got a "free" search--just like Ann Arbor. 

Here's how the article starts: 
They called consultant Jim Huge “Dr. Huge.” He isn’t They described Charlie Milligan as someone who gets involved in the community.  
He didn’t.
They told the School Board they’re “100 percent successful” in their searches. 
They aren’t. 
The record and the reputation of Ray and Associates and its headhunters are considered stellar in some school districts. In others, the company’s work led to dissatisfaction and at least one lawsuit. 
The News Tribune examined the company’s proposal to conduct a superintendent search for the Tacoma School District this year, the work it did for the district two years ago and its record with other districts, and found: 
 • The company’s application for the Tacoma job listed “Dr. Jim Huge” as the regional associate who would work on the search. Huge doesn’t have a doctorate and says he’s never claimed one. “If they did that, they were just trying to be nice to me,” he said. 
 • The confidential report prepared by the firm on Milligan before his hire two years ago said this: “When Dr. Milligan moves into a community, he moves in completely. … His visibility both in the school district and with the public makes him a very strong public relations force for the district.” His record in Tacoma was quite the opposite: He snubbed community groups, warred with the media and sparred with the teachers union. Board members cited his poor community relations when they fired him last June. 
 • Reports obtained through an open-records request showed overwhelmingly positive dossiers on four candidates for the Tacoma superintendent job in 2006. The reports, prepared by Ray and Associates, gave no mention of negative traits or criticisms on any of the applicants, including Milligan. (Emphases added.)

Read m
ore here:
So--lessons learned? In addition to the earlier concerns I have raised about Ray & Associates relationship to the Broad Academy, I have an even more basic concern that is raised by these reports. 

Let's make sure we have learned our lessons.
Let's not rely on Ray & Associates to do our vetting for us. 

Let's work to uncover both the positive and the negative about our superintendent candidates. (I am quite sure that every one of them has some negatives. Even I am not perfect...)
Let's make sure we do site visits and talk to lots of people. 

Let's make sure we read their dissertations or other publications. 

Many thanks to Sharon Simonton for her help with this research. 

After all, when you're choosing a superintendent, it's all about 


1 comment:

  1. I'd like to be able to say "amazing" but I'm not amazed by anything anymore after our last go-round.