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Shhh! Search for superintendent may take place entirely in secret

The Merced Union High School District is looking for a leader.

But how deeply involved the public will be in finding that leader is still up for debate.

Some educators and others insist that limelight will discourage qualified candidates who may hold other administrative jobs. Proponents of public input retort that the choice of arguably the most important position in the county -- an official accountable for hundreds of millions of dollars, tens of thousands of students and thousands of employees -- must be made at least in part by the taxpayers, parents and others who hold a vital stake in the outcome.

Thursday afternoon, the high school district board will meet with officials from the search firm Leadership Associates to solidify the process of hiring a new superintendent. The public is welcome at the meeting -- where the level of public involvement during the search is expected to top the list of contentious items.

Search firms shy away from getting Joe and Jane Q. Public involved in hiring a superintendent, arguing it keeps good candidates from applying. However, when a district is looking for the most important hire on its staff, it seems silly to union officials that those who will be overseen by that leader -- staff, parents and students -- wouldn't be involved in the process. "There are pluses and minuses" to both sides of the argument, said board member Tim O'Neill.

The need for a new leader began in October, when Superintendent Robert Fore announced he would retire at the end of the school year. Last month, the district hired the Mission Viejo-based search firm to help them find a replacement. The district will pay the firm $27,500 for what is expected to be a five-month search-and-hire process.

Hiring outside firms to help locate district leaders is nothing new. Fore himself was hired in 2003 by the district with the help of California School Board Association search executive Keith Daniel. In that search, all the finalists' names were kept confidential to "protect the candidates' privacy," Daniel said at the time. "With people being subject to everything being done publicly, and something goes wrong, then that person is out there for everyone, including their present board."

The board did, however, appoint a 16-member district liaison council -- made up entirely of school district employees -- to help pinpoint what attributes the future superintendent should have. That council, as well as a two-day period where Daniel met with the public to gather the same type of information, was the only community input given during the search.

While O'Neill said he isn't completely closed off from appointing another similar committee, he agrees with Daniel's comments in 2003. "I want the process to be as public as possible," he said. "However, I want to find the best candidate as well."

The reality is, he said, that many well-qualified candidates will already have jobs as superintendents and might not want to apply for a job where their names will be made public. "If I was a board member and had a sitting superintendent and I learned they were out beating the bushes looking for a new job, I may look at that person differently," O'Neill said.

Barbara Williamson, former Atwater Elementary School District Board president, disagrees. She said it's "not very realistic" for a superintendent to think they can apply for other jobs in secret. "That's pretty hard to keep confidential," she said.

In 2002, when the Atwater District hired former superintendent Lou Obermeyer, it used both a CSBA search executive and a community committee made up of parents, community members and district staff representatives. "Their input was very important to the board," Williamson said, adding the committee interviewed the top 10 or 11 applicants and provided feedback to the board.

Despite the involvement of the community, Williamson said the district received applications from many well-qualified candidates. She said the board didn't worry that the committee might deter people from applying. After Obermeyer resigned in 2001, the board promoted then-assistant superintendent Melinda Hennes without the help of a search firm.

Unlike its Atwater counterpart, the Merced City School District did not use a community committee when it hired Superintendent Terry Brace in fall 2005. Board member Gene Stamm said that was because of the time pressure put on the board to fill the position.

The district's superintendent at the time, Alan Rasmussen, resigned "all of a sudden," Stamm said, right before the 2005-06 school year. Advice from other superintendents in the area was to find a replacement fast, so a search firm was hired and aided the board in finding Brace. "We needed to get a superintendent in as soon as possible," Stamm remembered. "I didn't feel like we could wait five or six months to see it go through the whole process."

But if Stamm were to do it again, he said he would want the public's input during the superintendent selection process. "We got the right man," Stamm said. "But this isn't the corporate world. The community needs to be involved." When it comes time for the district to select its next leader, Stamm said, "I will certainly be in there pushing for that one element of the search."

Pushing for that element in the high school district's upcoming search will be Gloria Coulombe, president of the district's classified employees' union. "We have a vested interest," Coulombe said, as the new superintendent will ultimately be the union members' boss. "Absolutely, it must be open."

No matter how public the search for the Merced Union High School District's new superintendent ends up, it will be the board that makes the final hiring choice. "This is the most important decision a school board can make," O'Neill said. "We're going to take it seriously."

Reporter Abby Souza can be reached at 209 385-2407

Leader search

The Merced Union High School District Board will meet at 4:45 p.m. Thursday at the district office, 3430 A Street at the Castle Commerce Center, to discuss the search for a new superintendent.