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Jeffco's Superintendent Search Firm Has Learned a Few Lessons

Jeffco's Superintendent Search Firm Has Learned a Few LessonsEXPAND
Photo courtesy of Jeffco Public Schools
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Search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates has helped more than 1,000 school districts select new superintendents, but a handful of those leaders came with unexpected baggage — so unexpected that a few districts have questioned and even dismissed HYA mid-search.

But here in Colorado, HYA still has a job to do: It's overseeing the search for a new superintendent for Jefferson County Public Schools. In September, then-superintendent Jason Glass left the district for a position as Kentucky's Commissioner of Education. The hunt for his successor was officially launched four months later, and that search has continued amid an unusual challenge, with Colorado's four largest school districts — not just Jeffco, but Denver Public Schools, Douglas County School District and Cherry Creek School District — all searching for a new superintendent at the same time.

Jeffco has never before used HYA to help select a superintendent, though it has employed search firms in the past; Ray and Associates, an Iowa outfit, was hired by the district for the search that landed on Glass.

HYA, which is based in Schaumburg, Illinois, is viewed as a leader among companies that handle superintendent searches; according to Hank Gmitro, the firm's president, HYA conducts superintendent searches almost exclusively. Once it's hired, it reaches out to potential candidates, screens incoming résumés and eventually presents a pool of options to a district's board of education, which then interviews the candidates and makes its pick.

To date, according to Gmitro, HYA's work has led to more than 1,400 superintendent hires.

In business for 44 years, HYA has had plenty of hits — and some misses.

In 2005, HYA recommended a candidate to a Michigan school district who later was revealed to have lied about the degrees he said he'd earned. In 2015, the firm presented a candidate to a Minnesota district and, days after his hiring, an investigation by the Disability Law Center revealed that during his previous tenure as a Massachusetts superintendent, staff had routinely abused students with emotional disabilities. Another one of the firm's 2015 recommendations, for an Illinois school district, sparked parent outrage when, after the woman was offered the superintendent job, the district learned that she had previously worked with HYA — which the firm had not disclosed.

In 2016, HYA recommended a candidate for a job in Des Plaines, Illinois, who had resigned from his previous school district after being accused of sexual harassment. A 2018 recommendation in Nashville led to widespread criticism when it was discovered that the candidate had abruptly resigned from two previous school leadership positions and had been accused of mismanaging district finances.

The past controversies have prompted a handful of school boards to vote against a contract with HYA or dismiss the firm before its job was complete. But so far, Jeffco says it's very satisfied with HYA's work in the search for Glass's replacement.

"They have been responsive to our board's requests to accelerate the hiring process," says district spokesperson Cameron Bell. "They have delivered an extremely robust community engagement plan that included over sixty online sessions and an online community survey, and have been quick to identify community needs and take steps to meet those."

According to Bell, Jeffco gave HYA the search contract because of positive reviews from other districts that had used the firm. Jeffco was also interested in working with HYA because of its record of recommending qualified candidates who "demonstrated longevity of tenure" after being hired as superintendents.

During its standard process, HYA initially screens candidates through a Google search, reading all available information; it also asks candidates to list all current and past supervisors so that HYA can contact them. "We always like to talk with their current employer, but sometimes it's a little bit of a question as to when that happens," Gmitro says. "Some want to know they're a little bit further along in the process before they're comfortable with somebody calling their current boss."

After a candidate has been selected as one of the top contenders, HYA works with another firm to conduct a comprehensive background check. But the process has limitations, Gmitro explains. Sometimes the negative history is sealed in nondisclosure agreements or inaccessible documents, such as personnel records and settlement agreements.

In the Des Plaines case, HYA did not discover that the candidate had been accused of sexual harassment in his previous job because the man and his accuser resolved the conflict with a sealed settlement agreement.

"We were aware that something existed," Gmitro says. "We told the board about that information, that it existed and it was a red flag that needed to be investigated. We were dependent on the candidate and the previous school district sharing that information."

But while the school board and the search firm did not unearth that information, the local paper did. The Daily Herald obtained the details through the Wisconsin Open Records Law — which can be utilized by anybody to request certain documents and information — and the new superintendent resigned his post shortly thereafter.

HYA has released a statement regarding that situation. "We are investigating the ability [to] access personal records and settlement agreements in the various states where we do searches," it says. "In most cases, personnel records are not accessible through freedom of information requests, but this standard seems to be changing as more states are considering legislation where settlement agreements have to be made public. Our goal is to share as much information as we can learn with a board."

Last month, Colorado Senator Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Republican representing District 23, introduced SB 23, which would prohibit nondisclosure agreements for state employees. According to the Colorado Department of Education, however, only in rare instances are educators considered state employees; most are classified as district employees.

But Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, says there are other ways a search firm can investigate candidates — at least those from Colorado. "Personnel records are trickier," he says, "but as far as settlement agreements go...we do have to fight for those, but an entity can't contract its way out of the Colorado Open Records Act."

The Jeffco search isn't limited to Colorado candidates. But Gmitro highlights the firm's always-improving search procedures. "The vetting process continues to evolve," he explains. "Each time we come across an issue where we may have missed a piece of information, we update our vetting process, and then we also use it for training purposes."

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