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School district hires national search firm for new super, bypassing free, local option

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The national search for the next Washoe County School District superintendent will be conducted by professional search firm McPherson and Jacobson. The district’s Board of Trustees this week approved hiring the consultants and hope to have a new superintendent in place by July.

Trustees approved up to $100,000 to conduct the search, but school board President Beth Smith said that amount would be the maximum spent and that McPherson and Jacobson’s proposal was just under $60,000. 

Both trustee decisions—to cast a nationwide net for a district leader and to select a search firm—were approved on 5-2 votes, with trustees Diane Nicolet and Jeff Church voting no both times. 

The meeting’s first agenda item was to determine the scope of the superintendent search and how it would be conducted. Nicolet said she would prefer the search done locally and by school district staff.

“I personally trust, and I mean this sincerely, trust our local professionals to do this work rather than an outside agency, and I feel very strongly about that,” she said. She proposed collaborating with local staffing agencies and school district staff to conduct a search. 

“These people [at national search firms] are out there looking for people who maybe don’t even want to come here,” she said. “I don’t want them. … I don’t want to make the same mistake that we did in the last five searches.” 

WCSD Trustee Diane Nicolet, center, at a Board of Trustees meeting Jan. 9, 2024. WCSD Chief Legal Counsel Neil Rombardo sits to her left. Photo: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

WCSD Chief Legal Counsel Neil Rombardo said that if the board were to direct local staff in the candidate search process, all decisions and activities of the search would need to comply with open-meeting law requirements. 

“That means that when the board decides to do this themselves, which we can do, it means literally everything we do is in a public meeting,” Smith said. “I’m talking, like, four meetings a week, folks. We would have to direct staff on how to create the application, who we would have in our stakeholder groups. Every single application would need to be public.”

Smith said hiring an outside search firm would streamline the process and allow the company to manage the search process outside of open meeting law requirements while still following the board’s direction.  

Trustee Church said he would welcome a search subject to open meeting law. 

“I love open meeting law,” he said. “I love transparency.”

Church and two people providing public comment questioned why the district would pay for a new search firm when the search could be done for free. Church pointed to a provision of the contract with the Bryan Group, the Incline Village-based firm hired for the last superintendent search. The provision states that should the selected candidate leave the job within two years of signing the contract, the Bryan Group would conduct a second search and only charge for expenses. 

“It seems to me indisputable that the Bryan Group should be the one for free, other than expenses, to conduct the research to save us … $70,000,” Church said. 

“That would be predicated on this board’s interest in wanting to work with them again,” Smith said. “Based on that experience and the level of effort that was involved from this board and also the district, a more full-service experience has been preferred. Personally, based on the feedback and the expense, we wanted to bring to colleagues a more full-service experience with a different professional level that was different than what we had in the last search.”

“Unless there was some internal polling that I’m not aware of, I’m not aware that ‘we’ made any decision,” Church said. 

The Bryan Group was not included among the three firms presented to the board for consideration. Trustee Church said he wasn’t opposed to using the Bryan Group and that he recalled the board being pleased with their performance during the last search and with the quality of candidates they brought forward. 

During that search, in 2022, the Bryan Group had promised long-form interviews for trustees to review each candidate but changed the format when some candidates objected to their interview videos becoming public records. 

Trustee Nicolet, at the time, said she was frustrated none of the candidates had been informed of Nevada’s open meeting law requirements and that interviews would be viewed by the public. 

​​“That’s a red flag to me because you are in this situation where you’re being interviewed for a very important job and you cross the line? And so now we’re going to redo the process because some people are uncomfortable because they crossed the line?” Nicolet asked at the time.

Trustee Joe Rodriguez said he was open to casting a nationwide search for a superintendent but added that he hoped to see local and regional candidates included in the search. 

Proposals for national firms collected before board’s decision

The second agenda item as part of the trustees’ superintendent search discussion was to review presentations by three national search firms and potentially select one to hire. The proposals were solicited through an informal request for proposals (RFP) process beginning Dec. 11, 2023—more than six weeks before Tuesday’s vote approving the use of an outside search firm and extending the search nationally.

In 2021, the RFP for a candidate search firm was not launched until two weeks after trustees had approved a national search strategy.

Andrea Sullivan, the district’s director of procurement and contracts, said an informal process was chosen based on the timeline and the goal of having a superintendent in place for the next school year.

“You mentioned that we wanted a short timeframe … who is ‘we’?” Church asked. “Who decided we wanted a short timeline? Did you have direction? I keep hearing the word ‘we’ … and I’ve never been consulted on any of this. I just want to put on the record that ‘we’ ain’t me.”

Following the meeting, Trustee Smith told This Is Reno that a short timeframe was important.

“The spring hiring period for superintendents is well known in the education industry, and had the board waited to issue an RFP [until after this week’s vote], the hiring process would have been delayed for two months and greatly impacted WCSD’s ability to be competitive,” Smith said. 

WCSD Trustee Beth Smith at the Jan. 9, 2024 Board of Trustees meeting as trustees elect officers. Smith was re-elected to serve as board president. Photo: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

She added that it’s within her role as president of the board to ensure the group is efficient and effective in its work. 

“An informal, non-binding RFP allows the board members to have options immediately available to them—but with no obligation to act—and represents the most expedient and efficient way forward. Had the board decided differently on the initial agenda item, the subsequent item would have been removed from the agenda and we would have proceeded accordingly.”

Smith said trustees were also aware she would be organizing meetings for the board to discuss and make decisions on the process soon after Enfield submitted her resignation. She said she invited trustees to provide feedback, suggest ideas and ask questions repeatedly over the past several months prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

Five proposals were received, and an internal committee selected three to advance to trustees for consideration. The three finalists were Illinois-based Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates; Nebraska-based McPherson and Jacobson; and Iowa-based Ray and Associates. None of the five firms that submitted proposals were locally based, despite the RFP being open to any.

A staff report attached to the agenda item indicated trustees could forgo a contract award to any search firms. Still, such action may require allocating extra funds and staff resources to conduct the search internally. The staff recommendation was to proceed with one of three search firms.

Trustee Adam Mayberry said he was impressed by the superintendent retention record of McPherson and Jacobson, their network of contacts and the depth of their background checks. The company’s proposal indicated nearly 85% of its placed administrators are still in their positions five years later, and more than 55% are still in place after 10 years. 

Recalling the same language she used during the last superintendent search, Nicolet said it was a red flag for her that none of the finalists mentioned Nevada’s open meeting law and how they would tailor the process to comply with the law. She said that the lack of specificity toward Washoe County School District was reason enough to reject all three proposals. 

Trustee Colleen Westlake agreed that open meeting law compliance was important but not a driving factor in her selection.

“I think it is very important for our board to make sure we direct whatever vendor we choose … we need to be very explicit,” she said. “We have to do our homework. We need to make sure it is very crystal clear about the open meeting laws and what we are very specifically looking for in candidates. I think that’s more important than our choice. It’s how we direct our choice.”    

Representatives from McPherson and Jacobson will appear at the Feb. 2 Board of Trustees meeting to receive direction from the board on how to begin the search.

Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.

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