My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:
The West Bend School District is searching for a superintendent. Whoever gets the job has some big shoes to fill and some challenges to tackle. We should be as concerned about why a good superintendent would choose West Bend as we are about the School Board choosing a good superintendent.
The School Board has engaged a search company to recruit a superintendent in the wake of Ted Neitzke’s resignation. The application is already available and online. The plan is to stop collecting applications at the end of April, select candidates May 16, conduct interviews and choose a superintendent June 9 for a start date of July 1. As outlined, it is a fairly aggressive schedule.
The School Board has a lot of work to do to decide what they want to see in a new superintendent. Do they want someone from inside or outside of the district? Do they want someone looking to make radical changes or continue the current policies? Do they want someone who is an “upand- comer” or someone looking to build a legacy before retirement? Increasingly, districts are also hiring superintendents who come from outside of education like nonprofit or business leaders. Should the School Board consider a candidate without a background in education?
It is a lot to consider. It is the most consequential single decision a school board makes and it is a difficult decision to reverse if they make a bad one. Unfortunately, the School Board, through no fault of their own, is beginning its recruitment a little late in the year. The best results for recruiting a superintendent tend to happen when the search begins in January. Many of the truly superior superintendents on the market have already accepted positions. That is not to say that there are not still great candidates available, but the pool is smaller than it was four months ago.
But as the School Board considers the candidates who apply, the candidates will also be considering the West Bend School District. Good people — especially talented executives with the ability to lead an organization the size of the West Bend School District — have options. Why would a super super choose to lead the West Bend School District?
The West Bend School District is the 19th largest district in the state. It resides in a conservative county of mostly middleclass families. The business community is diverse and has a good working partnership with the school district. The students also have access to the University of Wisconsin-Washington County and Moraine Park Technical College, which are located in the district.
Within the district itself, a superintendent has a lot to work with. The School Board and outgoing superintendent built a blossoming charter school, 4K program, online education initiative, performing arts center, popular walk-in clinic for employees and data-driven management tools. The district’s employee-turnover rate is lower than other districts in the area and considerably lower than the national average. The parents and community are, for the most part, active and engaged.
The district is not without problems. There is a vicious and growing problem with heroin and other drugs. Test scores are not where they need to be. And much like many other enterprises in America, there are continuing upward pressures on costs like healthcare with downward pressures on revenue.
But the most pressing problem with the district right now is cultural. There is a small but vocal contingent of teachers, parents and agitators who have chosen to take a very personal and nasty approach to change advocacy. While some of their complaints about things like too many standardized tests are legitimate, their continued spreading of false characterizations about things like teacher turnover, open enrollment and district policies only serve to paint a negative picture of the district that does not exist.
Furthermore, their chosen tactic to personally pillory those with whom they disagree has been reprehensible. The virulent glee with which some members of our community celebrated the departures of Neitzke and School Board President Randy Marquardt on social media and in the newspaper does not speak well for West Bend. Consider how potential applicants for the superintendent’s job would recoil at the venom spat at his or her predecessor.
While it is good to be anxious about the School Board choosing the right candidate, the greater worry might just be whether or not the right candidate will choose West Bend. As we consider both sides of the recruitment equation, I urge the School Board to not be pressured to unnecessarily rush a decision. A review of large districts by Learning Point Associates advises that school districts allow up to a full year from the time of vacancy to properly recruit, hire and transition a high-level district employee. West Bend does not need to wait a full year, but neither does it need to hire someone by July 1. If the absolute right candidate is not found in this first pass at recruitment, the School Board should appoint an acting superintendent while they take the time to conduct a more thorough recruitment process. A bad hire can push an organization off the rails for years to come. It is essential that the School Board take the time necessary to find the right candidate.