The Billings School Board made a good call Monday in deciding to conduct a national search for a new superintendent.
The leader of Montana’s largest school district ought to be the strongest, best candidate. Trustees will have greater assurance of identifying that person if they conduct a deliberate and objective search.
Some trustees said at Monday’s meeting that they wanted to skip the search and hire Josh Middleton, who was hired as an assistant superintendent last June by then-Superintendent Keith Beeman. Middleton, former Laurel superintendent, has indicated an interest in the top job and was a candidate for interim superintendent after Beeman’s termination.
If Middleton is the best person for the job — and he could be — trustees won’t know for sure unless they look at other candidates. It could be a disservice to Middleton or any other internal candidate for trustees to fail to demonstrate that the local choice is the best choice.
We need look no further than a news story in Tuesday’s Gazette to see the kind of second-guessing and complaints that can follow a hasty or surprise decision on a key public hire. The Montana Board of Regents didn’t even publicly advertise the vacancy to be created by Sheila Stearns’ retirement later this year. Instead, regents last month appointed their own board chairman, Clayton Christian, as the next commissioner of higher education.
Most University System observers had expected a national search for Stearns’ successor. Regents held a series of forums around the state to gather public input on what qualities people want in a commissioner. Then the board hired a national search firm under a $75,000 maximum contract. Then regents announced the selection of Christian and his resignation as chairman in the same news release.
We agree with Jennifer Gursky, president of the Associated Students of Montana State University of Montana, who said: “A lot more transparency would have legitimized the process and, ultimately, the decision.”
“When the process is truncated as it was, people wonder who else would’ve showed up as a candidate,” said UM Faculty Senate President Dave Beck.
In 2001, Billings trustees abrogated a superintendent search. They decided rather quickly at a December board meeting to hire Jo Swain, a longtime district employee who was in her second year as interim superintendent. The vote was 5-4 to stop the search. A year later, Swain announced that she would retire at the end of the school year and trustees had to start searching for her successor.
In the spring of 2010, some Billings trustees were determined to avoid hiring a local candidate; they wanted a superintendent from a big school district outside of Montana. That’s who they hired. They fired him less than halfway through his second year.
If recent superintendent history holds any lessons for the next superintendent selection, it is this: The best person should be hired — regardless of whether he or she is from Billings, from Montana or from some distant city.
Trustees must approach this important choice with open minds and unflagging commitment to public participation. They must scrutinize the candidates carefully and decide which one would do the best job for the 16,000 children in Montana’s largest school district.
The $17,500 fee that the board voted to pay a search firm is a small investment in making a huge decision correctly.