Unknown donors pay up in broad search for Atlanta school leader

Atlanta’s search for its next school superintendent will cost five times more than originally planned, and taxpayers aren’t being told who’s paying for it.

The high-stakes search for the city school district’s leader will cost about $146,000 for services handled by a partnership between BoardWalk Consulting and Diversified Search, according to bid documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through open-records requests.

But none of the bid evaluators or the head of the school board’s Superintendent Search Committee revealed who is underwriting the nationwide search other than to say it’s funded by outside contributions. Superintendent Erroll Davis, who plans to retire next year, has led Atlanta Public Schools since he took the job in July 2011 after an investigation into standardized test cheating. He replaced Beverly Hall, who faces criminal allegations that she conspired to artificially inflate test scores.

The Atlanta Board of Education will choose a superintendent early next year, after voters select a new school board in November.

BoardWalk Consulting and Diversified Search were hired in August after the board fired its previous search firm, PROACT Search, over concerns that it lacked the resources or ability to land a top-tier candidate. PROACT’s contract was for $30,000, and Atlanta Public Schools paid it about $12,000 for running public meetings, conducting a survey and developing a leadership profile before severing ties with the company.

Money for BoardWalk Consulting’s contract will flow from the unidentified benefactors to Atlanta Public Schools, and the school system will then pay the firm, said Howard Grant, who handles the school board’s administration as its executive director. The money has already been raised, and the identity of the group or individuals giving it will be known once invoices are filed, he said.

BoardWalk Consulting’s bid was the highest among seven companies competing, but not all submitted bids defined a total cost, and their expenses might have eventually been higher. The runner-up bidder, Korn/Ferry International, could have exceeded BoardWalk Consulting’s costs if it had won the contract, after accounting for advertising, travel and background checks, said Bob Baxter, managing director of Korn/Ferry’s Atlanta office.

Because the more extensive search run by BoardWalk Consulting will be paid from a charitable source, cost wasn’t a factor when bids were reviewed, said Grant, one of five evaluators of the contract. Instead, the search firms were judged on their qualifications, resources, plan and timeline, according to the evaluators’ score sheets.

Grant said he didn’t know specifically who is providing charitable contributions, but they’re from private sources, so taxpayers won’t have to bear the expense. “It’s from stakeholders who understand how important it is that Atlanta Public Schools gets a quality superintendent,” Grant said.

The other evaluators were Ann Cramer, chairwoman of the superintendent search committee; City of Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Duriya Farooqui, and school board members Yolanda Johnson and Emmett Johnson.

Cramer didn’t respond to questions Monday about the source of the funds, and the remaining evaluators either didn’t return messages or wouldn’t comment.

BoardWalk Consulting’s price is higher because it will recruit candidates rather than simply receive applications, said Atlanta Board of Education Chairman Reuben McDaniel.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Send your resumes and we’ll review those.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘Let’s go find the best and brightest superintendents and other leaders and figure out how to acquire them.’ … We don’t want anybody to say we didn’t look under every rock to find the best leader,” McDaniel said.

McDaniel didn’t respond to follow-up questions Monday about who will pay for the search.

Cramer wrote in an email, “The executive search team of Diversified Search and BoardWalk is dedicated to the Atlanta search since it is not conducting other searches for urban superintendents.”

Sam Pettway, the founding director for BoardWalk Consulting, declined to comment.

The superintendent’s salary ranges from $275,000 to $325,000, with additional pay available for an ideal candidate, according to a position profile developed by PROACT Search.

Early applications and nominations for superintendent candidates should be submitted by Nov. 1, but the search process will remain open until it’s completed, according to a leadership profile dated Friday.

The search committee expects candidates to show a passion for public education, prior success leading complex organizations, sensitivity to urban issues, a record of delivering solutions and strong communication skills, the profile said.

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