"It's something we couldn't do otherwise," Board Member Mandy Lowell said Thursday night. "We're buying expertise."
It will cost the district $35,000 to hire Leadership Associates, in contrast to the other contenders for the contract: Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, Ltd., which submitted a $23,000 bid; and Ray and Associates, which bid $22,000.
The search for a new schools chief comes two months after Superintendent Mary Frances Callan announced she would retire, amid allegations that she and her senior cabinet lost the trust of members of the district's 50-member management team.
Leadership Associates has a 10-year history of conducting superintendent searches for California school districts, most recently including Beverly Hills Unified School District and Claremont Unified School District. Eight retired California superintendents run and operate the firm, two of whom, Michael Castin and Rene Townsend, will act as the primary contacts for Palo Alto.
Leadership Associates has nine partners throughout California who will assist in Palo Alto's search for its superintendent.
"You're an outstanding district; you'll be able to attract highly qualified candidates," said Castin, a retired superintendent from the Escondido Union School District in San Diego. "This is the type of district that people will want to consider."
Leadership Associates expects to have a new superintendent candidate for Palo Alto by July 1, 2007, according to its proposal. The firm said it will assist the district in negotiating the contract.
Board members praised the firm.
"I thought that this was someone we could work with," Board President Camille Townsend said.
"All spoke highly of Leadership Associates," Board Member Dana Tom said of the superintendents whom he queried about the three candidates.
Leadership Associates' prescreening process was considered strong, he added. Superintendents trusted the group and believed the firm would keep the process confidential, he said.
Thursday night, the board also heard presentations from Ray and Associates, based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, Ltd., the search firm that found Callan.
Lowell indicated concern that Ray lacked connections in the state. Board Member Gail Price said the district needed a fresh start.
Before sealing the deal with Leadership Associates, Townsend listed four items that need resolution. First, Leadership Associates must do a national search; the firm's experience is largely in California.
Castin said his firm is well-connected outside the state.
Additionally, the board wants Leadership Associates to provide residents a way to submit written suggestions about what they want in a superintendent; hold three to four community meetings; and create a 90-day plan that will help the superintendent transition into the new position and understand the district's traditions.
Castin said the initial search process will need to be conducted in a confidential manner. Palo Alto will attract sitting superintendents, he said, and only one will get the job.
"The other (candidates) could be damaged back home" if word got out that they were applying in Palo Alto, he said.
The Board plans to hold closed sessions to discuss specific candidates.