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Schools search may use wide net

The last time an outsider was named superintendent of Hillsborough schools, man had yet to walk on the moon and the Summer of Love was in full swing.

Almost four decades later, the Hillsborough County School Board is trying to decide how to find its next schools chief. Should it launch a national search, which would make an outside choice more likely, or save time and money by keeping its eye closer to home?

Some board members say a national search is the way to attract candidates who can offer a fresh perspective, especially important in a district as insular as Hillsborough, which has hired from within since 1967.

"It's difficult to compare yourself to yourself," said newly elected board member Doretha Edgecomb, who said she favors a national search to replace outgoing superintendent Earl Lennard.

"You need to find out who's out there," said board member Jennifer Faliero. "When the University of Florida needed a head football coach, it didn't just look in Alachua County."

Other board members question the need for such a broad search. They cite the expense, which could be as much as $80,000. They cite Florida's open records law, which they say would discourage many outside candidates from applying.

They also point to potential candidates already working for the district, including assistant superintendent Mike Grego and chief of staff Jim Hamilton.

"I've seen other districts go through these searches," said board member Jack Lamb. "You have people apply just because they want to come to Florida for the sunshine and the palm trees."

School Board members in Pinellas County faced the same question this year when superintendent Howard Hinesley stepped down after 14 years on the job. They opted for a national search that lasted 10 months, attracted 39 applicants and led to the hiring of Clayton Wilcox from Louisiana.

"When you do that, it really ratchets up the expectations and qualifications of candidates," said Pinellas School Board member Jane Gallucci, who initially wanted to promote Hinesley's deputy. "I wasn't a believer until I went through it."

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The Hillsborough board doesn't have much time to make its decision.

After nine years on the job, Lennard, 62, is stepping down in June. That leaves Hillsborough, the nation's 10th largest school district, just six months to find a replacement.

"We've got to move," Edgecomb said.

The board has set a tentative meeting for Friday to discuss how to structure a search and what qualifications to look for in candidates.

Representatives from the Florida School Boards Association and the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Great City Schools will be there to offer guidance.

Wayne Blanton, executive director of the school board association, said his group conducts two to four superintendent searches a year. The association most recently helped Manatee, Seminole, St. Johns and Alachua counties find new superintendents. Three of the four counties did national searches but all hired Florida candidates.

The association also conducted the search that resulted in Lennard's hiring in 1996. That effort drew a field of 40 applicants that was later culled to five.

Three of the finalists dropped out. One suggested the internal candidate, then-deputy superintendent Lennard, was receiving preferential treatment.

Blanton estimated Hillsborough would receive between 30 and 40 applicants if it opts for a national search.

"I've got a list in my office of probably 300 people who said they would like to come to Florida," Blanton said. "You've got to go out and find some good people."

Nancy Noeske, president of the Milwaukee, Wis., firm PROACT Search Inc., said to get the best candidates, Hillsborough should cast the widest net possible.

"The Hillsborough board should be very confident . . . that they will be able to recruit the very best," she said. "The board has an excellent reputation."

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The three newest board members _ Faliero, Edgecomb and Susan Valdes _ have said they favor a national search, as does chairwoman Candy Olson. Members Carol Kurdell, Carolyn Bricklemyer and Lamb have not been as firm.

At a recent board workshop, Bricklemyer said she had decided against a national search, then changed her mind. Kurdell talked about the field that applied when Lennard was hired and said, "Based on our last experience, we have people internally who are well qualified to be superintendent."

Though Olson was a board member when Lennard was hired and described that field as limited, she said she wants a national search regardless of whether there are good internal candidates.

"We are a big district. We need a higher level of search," Olson said. "I want to stack up our people. Seeing them against (outside candidates) will help me clarify my thinking."

Faliero said the lawsuit brought by former schools administrator Doug Erwin, which ended recently with a jury saying the school district had violated Erwin's right to free speech and whistle-blower protection, convinced her change is needed.

She said the school district spent the past two years denying Erwin's allegations of waste and mismanagement while turning itself upside down to improve school construction and renovation, the exact areas Erwin had said were at the heart of the problem.

"I think we need new blood," Faliero said. "I think there is a 30-year-old way of doing business. I would like to see someone come in and change that way of doing business to reflect a different way."

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A more limited search would have its advantages. It would be quicker and cheaper. And if an internal candidate, or even a Floridian, were hired, the disruption and learning curve would be reduced, board members say.

The School Board also would not have to worry about going through the effort of a broad search that may net only a few candidates.

Lamb said he wonders whether a Florida-only search might be best, given the peculiarity of state laws and regulations.

One obstacle to a national search is the state's open record laws, which makes the names of all applicants public. Sitting superintendents often are reluctant to job hunt in Florida because they don't want to jeopardize their current jobs by showing interest.

Consultant Bill Attea of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates of Chicago, which conducted the superintendent search in Pinellas, said Florida is the toughest state in which to recruit.

To find good candidates, Attea said, school districts need to do more than just advertise. Recruiting is key, especially with about 3,000 superintendent jobs open nationwide.

Sam Horton, president of the Hillsborough chapter of the NAACP, said he couldn't agree more. The organization has requested the board conduct a national search even as members hear rumors that Lennard's replacement already has been tapped.

"We've had the last two superintendents who have been basically products of the system," Horton said. "Consequently, you have a lot of inbreeding, and inbreeding creates a narcissistic attitude, "That we are good.'

"But you don't know you're good until you look outside yourself."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or melaniesptimes.com.

LAST THREE HIRES

Hillsborough's last three superintendents:

+ Raymond Shelton, the former assistant superintendent of business for Omaha, Neb., public schools. He became the county's first appointed superintendent in 1967 after a national search. Shelton retired in 1989.

+ Walter Sickles, Shelton's right-hand man and a former superintendent in Alachua County. Sickles retired in 1989 after a national search. He retired in 1996.

+ Earl Lennard, Sickle's top deputy when he was hired in 1996 after a national search. He will retire at the end of June.

Source: Times files

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