The Hillsborough School Board agreed Friday to search high and low for a new superintendent to replace outgoing schools chief Earl Lennard.
During a four-hour meeting, board members voted unanimously to conduct a national search and hire an outside firm to help them find a successor for Lennard, who retires June 30 after nine years on the job.
"I want to cast the widest net possible," said School Board chairwoman Candy Olson.
The board plans to ask six executive search firms and the Florida School Boards Association to meet with them in two weeks to outline their methods and costs. The board will choose from the firms, which are from across the United States. Most have experience in Florida.
Board members also signed off on a tentative timeline that would include opportunities for public input. The goal is to hire a new superintendent by May 1.
Michael Casserly, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Great City Schools, praised the board for moving quickly.
"They made all the right decisions that take most districts much longer," said Casserly, whose association represents the nation's largest school districts. "They did a nice job today."
The board could have restricted its search to local or state applicants. Several members had questioned whether a national search was necessary since the district has qualified internal candidates.
Board members also said they worry Florida's open records laws, which make candidate names public, could dissuade top candidates from applying.
Wayne Blanton, executive director of the the Florida School Boards Association, said that wouldn't be the case.
"You're going to get good candidates. You are a prize school district on the national scale," Blanton told the board. "(But) Superman and Superwoman do not exist. I know that's what you want."
During the discussion, two black community activists told the board they are concerned an inside successor may already have been tapped.
Activist Pete Edwards urged the board to publicly state its desire to promote a current administrator if that is their preference rather than going through the motions of a national search.
"Get it out of the way," Edwards said. "Have the courage to state your reasons."
Hillsborough has not hired an outsider for its top position since 1967, when Raymond Shelton, a Nebraska educator, became the county's first appointed superintendent.
The past two national searches resulted in the hiring of internal candidates, including Lennard.
Sam Horton, president of the Hillsborough chapter of the NAACP, asked the board to conduct a national search that is fair and open.
"Be sure the search is above reproach," he said.
Board members said they have open minds and their search will be one of integrity.
"It is going to be difficult because people don't always trust what we say," said Doretha Edgecomb.
Board members will decide what qualifications they want in their next superintendent later this month.
Casserly told the board they should first answer a fundamental question: "Are you going in the right direction or do you need wholesale change?"
Some school districts have gotten into trouble by not answering that question and then buying into a new superintendent's agenda, he said. Often, those superintendents do not last long.
Board members agreed that Hillsborough, the nation's 10th largest school district, has some problems. But overall, they said, they are pleased.
"In terms of major change, I don't think that's what we're looking at," said board member Jack Lamb.
Said Carolyn Bricklemyer: "Do I think we're moving in the right direction? Yes, I do. Do we need to accelerate? Yes, we do."
Board members asked deputy superintendent Dan Valdes to call the six firms they identified and request they meet with board members Jan. 19-20.
They want to know how successful the firms have been in previous searches, if they are conducting other superintendent searches now and if they have experience in searches for districts with more than 75,000 students.
Casserly said Hillsborough will be competing with about 10 other large school districts that have superintendent vacancies. They include Buffalo, N.Y.; Dallas; and Norfolk, Va.
Blanton told the board members to remember the search firms work for them, so they should decide what it is they want.
"The decision you're getting ready to make is the most important decision you'll make as a school board member," he said.
Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or melaniesptimes.com.
The Hillsborough School Board's expected timetable to find a superintendent:
JAN. 19-20: Interview executive search firms.
JAN. 25: Determine required qualifications and possible salary range.
FEBRUARY: Advertise position and seek local public input.
MARCH: Accept applications.
APRIL 5-7 AND 12-13: Interview finalists.
APRIL: Visit finalists' districts.
APRIL 15-MAY 1: Hire a superintendent.
JUNE 15: New superintendent begins.