Will they get what they pay for?
The State Board of Education is poised to hire Proact Search Inc. of Milwaukee to find Florida's next education commissioner. The firm boasts a nationwide network of candidates and a track record that includes finding a chief executive of Baltimore public schools and superintendents for Seattle, Cincinnati and Hillsborough County schools. But can the firm provide the two things that the State Board has said it wants most: top-notch candidates and a transparent process? Look to the past as prelude.
The Hillsborough School Board got promises in 2005 of "diamonds in the rough," those candidates who might not consider a superintendent's job but for the prodding of Proact. Instead, board members complained, they got retreads from the firm's past searches and lots of ex-superintendents on their way out of their old jobs. "I expected more," board member Jennifer Faliero said at the time. Hillsborough ended up hiring an insider for the top position. Asked about the dearth of top-notch candidates, Proact president Nancy Noeske told the board it would have been easier if the district did not insist on some of the pesky open records rules that Florida has, like releasing the names of applicants as they came in.
Which brings up issue No. 2. Proact likes stealth, as detailed in this article about its 2002 Cincinnati superintendent search. To quote one relevant part: "'We simply didn't create a record,' Noeske says about the Cincinnati search, in which she interviewed the candidates by phone and took notes, not by surnames, but by code names, such as: 'Candidate One' and 'Candidate Two.' Indeed, it was a process similar to that used by her company ... in New Orleans in 1998, in which the search materials were, as Noeske puts it, 'sanitized.'" In Hillsborough, the School Board had to remind Noeske several times that the state has the Sunshine Law and the district, and by extension the search firm, needed to heed it.
Negotiations are under way to see whether Proact's bid to be the State Board's search firm will win the day. The board set a pretty detailed description of what it wants in a commissioner. It will be interesting to see what it winds up with in its headhunter.