Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 14, 2014

School board settles on search firm

Among qualities sought: 'Bright, communicative, not intimidated'

by Chris Kenrick

"Bright, knowledgeable, communicative and not intimidated" are a few of the traits needed in a new superintendent of schools for Palo Alto, according to executive-search professionals who were publicly interviewed by the Board of Education Monday.

After spending the morning hearing the presentations by representatives of three search firms, board members decided to hire southern California-based Leadership Associates, a partnership of former California school superintendents, to manage the search for a price of $31,500.

Though they plan to advertise the Palo Alto job nationally, search professionals said Monday the new superintendent is likely to come from California for a variety of reasons, including the cost of housing and portability of state retirement packages.

Palo Alto's search will be led by Peggy Lynch, former superintendent of San Diego County's San Dieguito Union High School District and Orange County's Brea Olinda Unified School District.

Also on the search team are Phil Quon, former superintendent of the Cupertino Union School District and San Jose's Union School District, and Dennis Smith, former superintendent of Orange County's Placentia Yorba Linda Unified School District and Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Fla.

Lynch said she will work with board members and community groups to create a job description that best suits Palo Alto, including asking people to rank the personal and professional characteristics they consider most important.

She said the firm typically receives 15 to 20 applications and then recommends four to six, although sometimes there are as few as three applicants who best match the job description.

Lynch said the firm will maintain confidentiality of all candidates until a finalist is named and representatives for Palo Alto visit the finalist's home district for a final vetting.

"Current superintendents are not going to put themselves out there if it's public," she said. "There may be five finalists, but only one's going to get the job, and the other four have to go home."

Palo Alto is a "challenging place" to work as superintendent, search professionals said Monday.

"We'll want to be very cautious and careful and methodical as we talk to people so they're realistic about the expectations here, as well as the living environment," Smith said.

"This is a challenging place," he added. "You have to have a presence about you; you can't cower but you want to be an affable person, probably someone who has some seasoning, a significant level of experience. And the housing market is certainly something we have to talk about with candidates."

Quon said the ideal candidate would have "political skills, communication skills that your community demands, and somebody who knows instruction, finances and how to ask the right questions when he or she gets here to mold the team into an organization that will move the district forward."

"There are a lot of great candidates out there, but they're not necessarily going to be successful in Palo Alto," Smith said.

"You can say it's a tough gig; there's a lot of pressure here. There's no question about that. This is a unique district, and you need a unique leader."

Leadership Associates is the same firm the district hired in 2007 for the search that yielded current Superintendent Kevin Skelly. That search cost the district $35,000. This time, however, the search team members are different.

Among the runners-up Monday was search firm Hazard, Young Attea & Associates, which managed the searches for Skelly's two predecessors, Don Phillips, who served from 1997 to 2001; and Mary Frances Callan, who served from 2002 to 2007.

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