In the search for a new leader for Pinellas County Schools, timing may be everything.
The economy is bad. An election is coming. The job, as chief executive officer of the state's seventh-largest school system, is arguably tougher than ever.
Even worse, Pinellas County is coming a little late to the party — Broward, Palm Beach, Orange, Seminole and Monroe counties each hired a new superintendent in the past 10 months, conducting nationwide searches. Duval County schools also is hiring now.
"There's a small cadre of quality superintendents throughout the United States and we're all competing for the same people," said Thomas Jacobson, co-founder of McPherson & Jacobson LLC, a national recruiting firm that conducted the Orange County search and is handling Duval County's.
Pinellas County netted more candidates than some districts, pulling in 50 applicants by last week's deadline compared with 47 in Broward and 21 in Orange. But the overall quality of the Pinellas candidate pool is more mixed — and most of the candidates with experience as a superintendent in Florida were passed over by other counties.
Harry La Cava, former superintendent of Indian River County, has been a candidate at least four other times. Dennis Thompson, former superintendent of Collier County, applied at least three other times.
Bad timing, a poor economy and aggressive state education policies could explain the slimmer applicant pool in Pinellas, said Bill Montford, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.
"People are just cautious now," he said. "I think that's reflected in the applicants."
Broward and Orange drew candidates from the top tiers of urban school districts nationwide, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, Seattle and Portland. Applicants included superintendents, chief financial officers, deputy superintendents, businessmen, even a military commander.
Broward hired Robert Runcie, a former business leader who worked for Chicago Public Schools, while Orange picked Barbara Jenkins, its homegrown deputy superintendent.
Pinellas drew similar applicants during its 2008 search. That year, finalists included Alberto Carvalho, then associate superintendent of Miami-Dade schools; Nicholas Gledich, then chief operations officer for Orange County schools; Julie Janssen, then the district's interim superintendent; and Sherrie Nickell, then associate superintendent for Polk County schools.
This time, the search got off to a rough start, drawing its first few candidates from the construction industry — the result of a misunderstanding created by an advertisement on the online job site Monster.com.
Just one out-of-state candidate, William Miller of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District in Michigan, has recent experience running a school system larger than 25,000 students. Washtenaw has about 50,000 students.
Two candidates come from the top ranks of Florida school districts — Constance Jones, chief academic officer of Lee County, and Kathryn LeRoy, chief academic officer of Duval County. Jones also was a finalist for superintendent in Palm Beach County.
Board members have been mostly mum about the results of the search — they'll cull finalists during a July 17 meeting. Some community members have suggested that a national search firm would have found a broader pool of applicants.
Board members chose Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, to guide the search. Blanton has been involved in about 75 searches over the course of 30 years, including recent ones in Palm Beach, Lee and Seminole counties.
Blanton hasn't returned calls for comment about the search results.
Elliott Stern, a School Board candidate in District 1, said the board needs a firm that will solicit individuals, rather than put out advertisements.
"We need a professional, as far as I'm concerned," he said.
The Pinellas Education Foundation, a business-led nonprofit that raises money to benefit local schools, was a vocal advocate for a national search done by a head-hunting firm.
Jim Myers, chairman of the foundation, said he hasn't vetted any candidates, so he couldn't comment on the search results. But he said they wanted a national firm because it would have a "chance to get a broader base of applicants at least."
"It's just such a key critical decision for our district that will affect us for many years to come," he said.
Jacobson said for a district like Pinellas his firm would try to recruit experienced superintendents in midsized districts and up-and-comers — assistant superintendents, deputy superintendents and the like — from larger districts.
"A lot of the good candidates that we recruit are doing a good job where they are and aren't looking for a job," he said.
Wooing them requires a lot of networking and phone calls, he said.
But Jacobson said the school boards association runs a "good service." Many school districts have sought out their services to save money, too. His firm is charging Duval County about $30,900 for its search, according to the contract. Pinellas expects to spend about $20,000.
Montford said it may just be a tough time to recruit a lot of quality people.
A deputy superintendent working for a good superintendent might be reluctant to leap into a bigger, more precarious role, he said. Particularly since there might not be a job waiting if it doesn't work out.
"A lot of your top-level executives, public and private, aren't taking the chance to move," he said.
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com (727) 893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.