LONG BEACH — Susan Holland has been spending a lot of time in airplanes lately. From her home office in San Francisco, she has flown to Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Boston and several other U.S. cities. At least once a week she has flown to Long Beach to report on those trips.
"I am an agent," Holland said of her job. "I am brokering two competent entities toward each other."
One of those entities is the Long Beach Unified School District. The other is the unnamed candidate who will ultimately become the district's new superintendent.
In a break with longstanding tradition, the district last spring hired Holland--vice president and western regional manager for a professional executive search firm called MSL International Limited--to conduct an aggressive nationwide search to replace Supt. Francis Laufenberg, who retired in July. On Wednesday, board members plan to meet in closed session in an attempt to narrow the list of 10 candidates they have interviewed from around the country. By the middle of next month, they said, they hope to name a new chief administrator of sufficient stature to justify the $25,000 price tag for the national search.
Long Beach has not hired a superintendent outside the district since 1937, according to Richard Van der Laan, spokesman for the district.
"We have many fine people within the district, but we felt that we wanted to afford an opportunity for others to apply," said board president Arlene Solomon. "Our energies are being well spent in trying to get the best person for the job."
Ted Witt, editor of a weekly education journal published by the Assn. of California School Administrators, said more and more districts are hiring consultants who specialize in educational management searches.
"School board members are lay people and not professional personnel people," said Witt, whose journal--"Education California"--lists more than 1,000 openings a year for school administrators throughout the state. "Sometimes districts want an outside independent search."
Long Beach went a step further by contracting with an executive search firm that, although long active in recruiting business executives, has limited experience in the education field. Pat Howlett, ACSA director of communications, said she is not aware of any other California school district that has hired a search firm whose major experience has dealt with private-sector executives.
"They wanted to be selective, but as objectively selective as possible," said Holland, whose firm--with eight offices throughout the country--helped select a deputy school superintendent in Philadelphia, but never a district's chief administrator. "Up to this point in time, (the district) felt they just had to take what was given to them. We're showing them how to be pro-active rather than re-active."
Board members say they chose the firm because they were impressed with its professionalism and ability to conduct a major national search.
"We needed to be forward looking," Solomon said. "We wanted to get the best thinking that was available in seeking out candidates."
The district expanded its search, she said, because there was no heir apparent to step into the position. Deputy Supt. Charles Carpenter, 52, who has been acting superintendent since Laufenberg's departure, announced early in the process that he would not be a candidate. (Laufenberg was paid $77,000 annually.)
In addition, board member Harriet Williams said, the board saw something of a precedent in the selection of City Manager John Dever, who was chosen through a similar process in 1977. "We could have appointed a committee of retired Long Beach educators," she said. "But somehow that seemed like unnecessarily perpetuating what we already had, as good as that might be, rather than looking at innovative people (from the outside). It was very important to us that we get the best person we could."
Looking for a Leader
Holland began the process of finding that person by meeting with the board to compile a list of qualifications considered important in a candidate. Beyond the ordinary qualities expected of any school superintendent, according to Williams, the board was looking for "an educational leader" with excellent communication skills who could "mend some bridges with the city, work more closely with our classroom teachers and work closely and sensitively with all of the ethnic populations in our city."
The district--whose 64,000 students have become more and more ethnically diverse in recent years--is engaged in a legal and verbal battle with the city over new residential development, which the district maintains will make classroom facilities inadequate within two years.
Williams said she would also like to see a new superintendent who can "do a good job with the money we have now" as well as provide strong leadership in dealing with the Legislature to "find us some new money."