DeKalb schools fires superintendent search firm

The DeKalb County Board of Education voted to fire the search firm charged with finding a replacement for outgoing Superintendent Michael Thurmond, a day after another district ousted the firm over concerns of misconduct.

The contract with Illinois search firm PROACT Search was severed due to misconduct allegations against SUPES Academy, both of which are run by Gary Solomon. Chicago news outlets report the FBI is investigating a $20 million no-bid contract given by Chicago Public Schools to SUPES Academy and what role was played by the schools CEO, who is a former SUPES employee.

About 120 candidates had been identified for the DeKalb schools post through the search firm. PROACT Search had received $16,000 of the $25,000 contract for the search. No more payments will be made, board Chairman Melvin Johnson said.

Efforts to reach Solomon, the PROACT Search CEO, were unsuccessful.

Johnson said the search likely will continue with the help of the district’s law firm, also certified as a search firm. In the beginning of the search, the move was seen by some as a conflict of interest since the firm would be helping hire its next boss, which bothered some board members.

“We will take those 120 (candidates), review all the data and see if, in fact, (Solomon) missed something we want to consider,” Johnson said. “This will eliminate any doubt that he was trying to push a particular client.”

The group was to begin interviewing semifinalists this week, with hopes of selecting a superintendent in June.

“I feel comfortable we will proceed in the previously communicated timeline,” board member James McMahan said. “We started this process many, many months ago, have had numerous candidates apply. We had selected semifinalists we have had wonderful conversations with.”

Zepora Roberts, who served on the board from 2001 until 2010, said she never had been impressed by the search firm at any of the three public meetings she attended. One person with the firm, who likely would help in the search, spoke of having experience as a guidance counselor in schools, but little else.

“I was not impressed with them whatsoever,” she said, “The board should’ve made this decision (to fire PROACT Search) before now.”

The decision comes amid an already rocky process in which DeKalb had little choice but to hire PROACT Search, which had been dismissed by the Atlanta school board during its search in 2013. Atlanta Public Schools eventually used Atlanta firms BoardWalk Consulting and Diversified Search to identify and hire Meria Carstarphen, schools spokeswoman Kimberly Willis Green said Monday.

Only four firms responded to DeKalb’s nationwide solicitation last year, including PROACT, the search firm that landed Thurmond’s controversial predecessor, and the board’s law firm.

With its options exhausted and time running out, DeKalb hired the company early this year.

In Atlanta, members of a committee overseeing the search worried that PROACT’s time and staffing were divided between several school districts; a similar concern arose at a DeKalb meeting in December, when one school board member noted that PROACT would be working for a district in a neighboring state. Some DeKalb board members also were concerned that the firm did not get all of the 100 possible points in the district’s contractor rating process.

There was plenty of drama during the search for Thurmond’s predecessor.

There were allegations of leaks from private meetings as vying factions sought to influence the outcome.

One top candidate withdrew when her name surfaced publicly. Ultimately, the board settled on Cheryl Atkinson, the superintendent of a tiny, low-achieving district in Ohio.

She lasted a year and a half in DeKalb, quitting before her contract expired and as the district was reeling from an accreditation crisis. DeKalb was on a path to losing accreditation because of multiple failures of leadership, including for the process that led to the hiring of Atkinson.

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Ty Tagami contribued to this story