DeKalb superintendent search foiled by job security

DeKalb County lost its top choice for superintendent partly because she and the school board couldn’t agree on terms that would give her more job security, emails obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show.

Lillie Cox of Hickory, N.C., wanted due process, or the promise that if fired for cause she would have time to go before the school board and respond to the charges against her. Cox withdrew after it appeared the board was not willing to give her the job protection, and after details about negotiations were made public. Cox accepted another job this week in North Carolina for less money but more security.

The emails offer a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to secure a superintendent and what concessions DeKalb and metro school districts may have to make to find new leadership.

Headhunters and hiring experts agree that across the country, it’s a superintendent’s market. Atlanta and Cobb and DeKalb counties are looking for new leaders. Last month, Fulton County hired Charlotte, N.C., school administrator Robert Avossa after a swift search conducted by local law firm Brock Clay.

DeKalb wanted flexibility to fire Cox “for any good and sufficient reason” without having to guarantee her severance; Cox was unwilling to sign onto what her attorney called an “at-will contract.”

Richard A. Schwartz, who represented Cox during negotiations, said DeKalb’s expectations were out of step with industry standard, and warned the board it would have a hard time negotiating with other candidates if unwilling to budge on the termination issue.

“Unless you have someone who is desperate for a position, or is rehabilitating themselves after a prior bad exit, you will be hard-pressed to find a strong candidate who is foolish enough to leave a secure position, move their family and take a contract which provides absolutely no job protection,” he wrote in an April 17 email to the district’s lawyers.

On April 23, Cox withdrew from contention after several attempts to negotiate and after details about her contract demands were leaked to the public. Monday, she was hired by Alamance-Burlington Schools, a North Carolina district where she worked previously. There she’ll earn a base salary of $175,000 compared to the $275,000 offered by DeKalb. Cox’s new contract contains due process rights.

Cox and her attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

DeKalb board Chairman Tom Bowen said he couldn’t comment on Cox’s negotiations, but said the district is trying to balance the superintendent’s need for job security with the board’s desire to hold him or her accountable for performance.

“What it comes down to is how much security is a board willing to give and how much risk is a superintendent is willing to take,” Bowen said. “We’re not looking to give so much security that performance is irrelevant.”

Bowen said DeKalb is reviewing previous applicants but has not honed in on any finalists. The goal is to have a new superintendent by July 1.

Ousting past superintendents has been costly for DeKalb schools. Crawford Lewis received at least $85,000, four months of his $255,000 annual salary, plus benefits, when he was fired from the district in April 2010. He was later indicted on charges he ran a criminal enterprise out of the school system.

In 2004, Johnny Brown left with a $410,000 payout after two years on the job.

In emails, it appears the board wanted at least two paths to sever ties with Cox, a “convenience” clause, which would allow the board to fire her for no reason with a 12-month severance payout, and another that allowed the board to fire Cox with cause, and pay nothing. Cox’s attorneys wanted to better define the reasons she could be fired under that provision, and to guarantee her a due-process hearing before the board.

Cox’s attorney said the contract would make her too vulnerable to losing her job after a board election or amid controversial decisions such as school closings.

D. Glenn Brock, who conducted the search for Fulton and has helped placed superintendents in some of Georgia’s largest school districts, said contracts vary from community to community. He said in general, due process rights similar to what’s offered to teachers are seen in more contracts than not.

“It’s a balance between what the community can tolerate and how much you want the candidate,” said Brock, who would not comment specifically about any one district’s search. “If you have a great candidate, the board may be willing to bend on compensation pieces.”

Brock said boards must come to a clear understanding about what characteristics they’re looking for and know the demands of a finalist in the early stages of the process.

In Atlanta, recruiting and the application process are ongoing. The names of three finalists are expected to be made public in mid-June if the search stays on schedule. Cobb is still in the process of settling on a top candidate, after confidential negotiations with reported top candidate Rockdale Superintendent Samuel King apparently fell through.