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How many search firms does it take to not find a new superintendent?

The members of the Denver Board of Education were so unimpressed by the superintendent candidates that a search firm produced almost two years ago when Chip Zullinger was named to lead Denver Public Schools that they decided to use a different company when it came time to replace him.

But it wasn't the new firm -- Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, which earned $40,000 for the job -- that found Jerry Wartgow, the man who was just named as the district's latest superintendent. Local businesspeople recruited him.

Zullinger was fired last May after only nine months on the job. He had a habit of making decisions without running them past his bosses -- a habit that had landed him on administrative leave in his previous job as superintendent of the Charleston County, South Carolina, schools.

When this information surfaced in Denver, while Zullinger was still just a candidate for the job here, residents urged the school board to continue its search. Members of the Hispanic community also opposed the appointment because they wanted someone who had experience working with bilingual students. But the search firm that found Zullinger, Wisconsin-based Overton Consulting, couldn't come up with anyone better: One of the candidates was retired, one hadn't worked in a school district for more than a year and one had been accused of financial mismanagement.

So the board chose the least of four evils. Nine months later, Zullinger was gone, and the school district had to buy out the remainder of his four-year contract, which cost taxpayers more than $200,000.

Despite the embarrassment surrounding Zullinger's hiring and firing, the board again hired a search firm, albeit one that hasn't always done a good job in the past: The Washington Post discovered in May 1999 that a finalist whom Hazard had selected to head the Montgomery County, Maryland, school district had filed for personal bankruptcy. In Dallas, it was discovered that a candidate for that city's superintendent job had a drunk-driving record that the search firm had missed. And reporters found that one firm-selected finalist for an Orlando superintendent post had been fired from a past job for overspending.

In Denver, Hazard's effort, which included input from the public, began last fall when consultants for the company surveyed people about what they wanted in a superintendent. The firm posted questionnaires on the DPS Web site, held public forums and interviewed teachers, administrators, parents, students, city council members and business leaders.

That cost $40,000, not including additional expenses like airline tickets -- which haven't been tabulated yet -- for the consultants to fly back and forth between Denver and their home base in Glenview, Illinois. (That's about the same as what the district paid Overton Consulting during the Zullinger search: $38,000 to recruit and screen candidates, $3,200 for travel and $4,400 for a public survey.)

And although about forty people were screened by Hazard, it was a group of Denver business leaders who passed Wartgow's name along to the DPS and the search firm at the last minute. Hazard screened Wartgow, and when the list of three finalists was presented in April, it included his name.

Wartgow, who was president of the Colorado Community College and Occupational Education System for twelve years, before retiring in 1998, was working as a private consultant when he was approached. He declines to say who contacted him, only that he'd worked with them in the past. But he says the whole thing came as a surprise. "I wasn't even aware a search for a superintendent was going on," he says. "It all happened very quickly. If someone would have told me three months ago that I'd be superintendent, I wouldn't have believed it."

Floyd Ciruli, of local polling company Ciruli Associates, says it's hard to find good prospects, especially when a school district is seeking non-traditional candidates -- those who don't come from the public school system -- which the Denver school board was.

Ciruli's firm conducted a superintendent search for the Boulder Valley School District three years ago that resulted in the hiring of Navy commander Tom Seigel. "We came up with the first superintendent in the state that didn't fit the mold," Ciruli says. "By and large, search firms find people in the queue, like assistant superintendents. It's very difficult for search firms to find someone outside the mold, and I commend the DPS for doing that."

Denver school board president Elaine Berman says the cost for the search firm was well worth it, despite the fact that the company didn't find the eventual winner. "The way a good search should work is for everyone to be looking," she says. "The purpose of a search firm is not just to recruit people, but to screen people.

"We got so much more for our money from Hazard, Young and Attea than the last search firm," she adds. "The last firm recruited everyone, and yet we didn't get a quality group of candidates. The general consensus was that the four finalists they came up with were weak."

Wartgow will officially take over as DPS superintendent in June. He'll be paid $200,000 a year.

 
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