Current and recent superintendents of the six largest metro Atlanta school districts are, clockwise from top left: J. Alvin Wilbanks of Gwinnett; Steve Green of DeKalb; Jeff Rose, the former Fulton leader; Morcease Beasley of Clayton; Meria Carstarphen of Atlanta; and Chris Ragsdale of Cobb.

Metro Atlanta searches for new school leaders often bumpy, costly

Fulton County Schools is on the hunt for its next superintendent, one of about a dozen such high-stakes searches conducted in the last decade by metro Atlanta districts. 

In about half of those, something has gone awry or taken an unexpected turn. From suspended searches to finalists dropping out to school boards firing the firms they thought would find them their next leader, hiring a superintendent can be messy and sometimes expensive, costing some districts tens of thousands of dollars. 

But choosing a chief is also one of the most important decisions a school board makes. The superintendent helps develop priorities, recommends a budget and sets the tone. As the district’s public face, the superintendent can become a beacon of hope for parents or their punching bag. 

It’s a challenge the Fulton school board, which leads Georgia’s fourth-largest district with 94,491 students, is undertaking amid a climate where some parents distrust the board, and potential candidates may be wary of the reason for the vacancy. 

The new leader will be the district’s fourth superintendent, not including interim leaders, since spring 2008. He or she will take over after former Superintendent Jeff Rose resigned citing unspecified personal reasons in November, almost a year before his contract expired. The board in June pushed back his annual review by several months to allow more time to collect information before considering a contract renewal, and some parents who like Rose believe that delay signified a lack of support for him

The school board has yet to set a formal search process, though President Linda Bryant said the mechanics will be similar to other recent superintendent searches. The board, which brought back former superintendent Cindy Loe to serve as an interim, wants to have someone on the job by next school year. 

“We don’t want to hurry the process,” she said. “We want someone who is going to stay with us for a while.” 

Some parents want to be included in that process. They liked Rose and blame the school board for his early departure. They’re tired of the instability that each new search for a superintendent brings, and say they want someone who will bring the district together. 

“They really don’t want parents involved. They want us to sit down and be quiet,” said Franchesca Warren, who helps lead a South Fulton parent group that supported Rose. 

Bryant said the board plans an online survey of parents and other stakeholders on the traits and skills desired in a superintendent, but she said it’s the board’s job to conduct candidate interviews and make the big decision. 

“That is what we are elected to do, is to hire a superintendent,” she said. “It will be a transparent process, and we will include all of the parents’ hopes and prayers.” 

Warren said parents should be able to participate in interviews, and students should have a chance to ask questions. That’s not common, though boards approach the process in different ways, according to the Georgia School Boards Association. While state law allows much of the search to remain confidential, the board must wait 14 days before voting on an appointment after releasing the names of up to three finalists. Districts often announce only one finalist. 

Warren already mistrusts Fulton’s search. 

“They’re not willing to change anything. They’re going to continue to do what they’ve always done,” Warren said. 

The board has not hired search firms in the last decade, relying instead on its attorney to help and offering a $10,000 finders’ fees to firms that recommend a candidate the board picks. Fulton hasn’t paid out that fee in its recent searches. 

The district has spent about $12,000 on each of its last two searches, in 2016, when the board chose Rose, and in 2011, according to documents obtained by an open-records request. Those costs covered travel and lodging for candidates and meeting space. 

The retainer the district pays its law firm includes search help. 

“Why pay any more?” Bryant said. “It’s been good for us.” 

Superintendent-search experts are divided about Fulton’s prospects this time around. 

Glenn “Max” McGee, president of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, called Fulton a great district but said he’d be surprised if its search netted more than five “quality applicants.” 

The Illinois-based company handles about 60 superintendent searches a year, and McGee acknowledges he’s partial to searches that use professional consultants. McGee said his firm ends up recruiting more than half of the top candidates in searches. 

But he said Fulton has another problem to contend with — the predecessor’s hasty departure. 

“When a superintendent leaves early that’s a red flag for potential candidates,” he said. 

Possible applicants will wonder what the board is like and why the other superintendent left. Candidates naturally are skeptical of answers they get from the board, McGee said. 

Samuel King, who leads the superintendent-search service offered by the Georgia School Boards Association, also recommends that boards choose someone with expertise in searches to assist them. 

King said the Atlanta area attracts executives who want to work here, and he expects that will be the case for Fulton’s superintendent search. 

“Fulton has urban-slash-suburban traits, so there are highly qualified CEOs out there who will be interested,” he said. 

The association typically conducts 10 to 14 Georgia superintendent searches a year and charges $7,000 per search, plus travel and other costs. 

King said they customize the search according to the district’s needs and look for someone who can carry out the system’s strategic plan. The typical process includes posting the job ad for about six weeks, creating a custom application, reviewing applications, presenting them to the board, and helping set up interviews — which he recommends be done off-campus at a “neutral” site. 

It takes about three months, or more, to complete, he said. 

Hazard, Young, Attea was hired to help the Denver school board find its next superintendent. It charged $30,000. McGee said the cost can go up to $60,000 if the firm also manages the community-engagement part of the hiring process, which includes in-person and virtual town halls to get feedback about what people want in a school leader and conducting surveys in multiple languages. 

No matter how the superintendent search is conducted, metro districts’ experiences in recent years are proof there are often bumps or delays. 

Fulton’s 2016 search hit a snag when the sole finalist, who was the Clarke County superintendent, withdrew amid criticism over how his district handled the alleged rape of a high-schooler. About three weeks later, the Fulton board announced one of its other top candidates, Rose, would get the job. 

Hiccups or twists have happened elsewhere, too. 

Atlanta Public Schools conducted one of the most-expensive area superintendent searches in the last decade, which resulted in hiring Superintendent Meria Carstarphen in 2014. The district had previously suspended a 2011 search, for which it had signed a not-to-exceed contract of $60,000 with Hazard, Young, Attea, and instead hired an interim superintendent to straighten out the system amid a massive test-cheating scandal. 

A couple of years later, when the Atlanta school board was ready to look for a permanent leader, it tapped PROACT Search to assist. Months later, the board fired that firm out of concern it wouldn’t attract a top candidate. APS had to pay the dismissed firm about $10,000, in addition to the $183,000 it paid out to the search experts it hired next, records show. 

In 2015, DeKalb schools ditched PROACT amid emerging misconduct allegations related to the firm’s CEO. The district paid the firm two-thirds of its $25,000 contract and ultimately hired Superintendent Steve Green

Clayton County Public Schools searched for a leader in 2017 after a handful of superintendents and interims had held the post over the previous decade. As in most of their recent searches, the board leaned on the district’s lawyer instead of hiring a search firm. 

Documents show Clayton’s national search racked up roughly $20,000 in law firm invoices — $360 to update a PowerPoint presentation with a map and other information, $180 to draft questions for reference checks, $760 to run a social media background check and other work. 

The school board ultimately announced it would promote Morcease Beasley, an internal candidate, to the top spot.

By the numbers: Fulton County Schools

Students this fall: 94,491

Full-time employees: About 11,000

School campuses: 105

Student ethnicity in 2017-18: 42 percent black, 30 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, 12 percent Asian

Students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch in 2017-18: about 45 percent

Former superintendent base salary: $295,000

Cost of last superintendent search in 2016: $12,253

Metro Atlanta superintendents of the past decade (including interims)

ATLANTA

Beverly Hall — July 1999 to June 2011

Erroll Davis — July 2011 to June 2014

Meria Carstarphen — July 2014 to present

CLAYTON

Gloria Duncan — 2007 to 2008

John Thompson — April 2008 to March 2009

Valya Lee — March 2009 to June 2009

Edmond Heatley — July 2009 to September 2012

Luvenia Jackson — October 2012 to June 2017

Morcease J. Beasley — July 2017 to present

COBB

Fred Sanderson —- December 2005 to June 2011

Michael Hinojosa —- July 2011 to May 2014

Chris Ragsdale —- 2014 to present

DeKALB

Crawford Lewis — October 2004 to April 2010

Ramona Tyson — 2010 to 2011

Cheryl Atkinson — September 2011 to February 2013

Michael Thurmond — 2013 to June 2015

R. Stephen Green — July 2015 to present

FULTON

James Wilson — 2005 to 2008

Cindy Loe — April 2008 to 2011

Robert Avossa — June 2011 to 2015

Kenneth Zeff — June 2015 to 2016

Jeff Rose — June 2016 to November 2018

Cindy Loe — November 2018 to present

GWINNETT

J. Alvin Wilbanks — 1996 to present

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