Salem-Keizer’s next superintendent will be a mystery to most of the public

Members of the Salem-Keizer School Board face the monumental task in the coming months of hiring a new leader to direct the education of nearly 40,000 local students.

But under a hiring process approved by the school board earlier this month, that superintendent’s name would remain a mystery to most Salem parents, students, educators and taxpayers until the board votes on a final contract to hire them.

Board members during a Nov. 8 meeting unanimously approved a confidential search process at the recommendation of their contracted executive search firm, Human Capital Enterprises. The board discussed the process during an Oct. 4 work session.

Under the process adopted by the board, the search firm is soliciting input from selected district employees, parents and community members on a document outlining the criteria for the next superintendent.

Members of the public can give written input on that profile on the district website. The board will vote on the profile at a Nov. 30 meeting after considering written public comment and decide on a compensation range. Recruitment will begin in early December.

The board intends to hire a superintendent in February to begin work July 1, following Superintendent Christy Perry’s retirement.

Some district residents and stakeholders would be invited to participate in a confidential interview process, meeting with finalists and giving feedback to the school board.

Hank Harris, president of Human Capital Enterprises, told Salem Reporter that in general during searches, his firm oversees that process, not the district. He seeks a broad pool of applicants and generally chooses who participates randomly, with some controls to ensure a diverse group.

But board meetings to identify finalist candidates, interview them, discuss the results of background checks and decide who to offer a contract to would all be conducted in executive sessions, which are not open to the public under Oregon law.

Instead, the public would only learn the name of the candidate the board intends to hire when the board meets publicly to vote on a final contract.

It’s common, though not required, for top government jobs, like school superintendents, city managers and police chiefs to have a hiring process where multiple finalist candidates are named publicly.

Those processes often involve community interviews or meet-and-greet events where anyone in the community can meet candidates or submit questions for them.

The city of Salem used an open hiring process for its city manager search earlier this year, announcing three finalists who were publicly interviewed before hiring Keith Stahley. 

The district’s last superintendent search in 2015, when the school board hired Christy Perry, was also public.

Harris told board members his experience after over a decade of searching is that the strongest candidates for a top job like superintendent often won’t apply if they know their names will be publicized as finalists.

That’s because they fear damaging relationships with their home school district and board.

“It absolutely will impact the quality,” he told the board during their October work session.

A confidential process has been used by other Oregon school districts during recent superintendent searches, including Portland Public Schools’ hiring of Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero in 2017.

Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, was chair of the Salem-Keizer board during its last hiring process, but said the increasingly politicized nature of school board business has changed the landscape.

“Given some of the things that we’ve seen gone on over the last couple years, boards are opting more toward the process Salem-Keizer has in order to get a more robust list of candidates,” he said.

Jack Orchard, a Portland attorney and expert in Oregon open meeting laws, said while the process is legal, he’s skeptical of the argument that it changes the candidate pool, saying generally board members are aware when their superintendent may be looking elsewhere.

“I’m not sure that you gain a whole lot, and the risk is the superintendency has some bumps in it or continues to generate controversies then the school board looks like you made a decision basically in private and picked a person that the community wasn’t comfortable with,” he said. “That’s the risk. The risk may not happen, they may pick a really good person.”

Board Chair Ashley Carson Cottingham said the board has worked to include public input in the process in other ways, including through confidential community interviews. She said the board believes the process will yield the best possible leader for the district.

“There’s been a broad outreach process to identify key attributes and create the profile of the person that we’re looking for. For me, that’s really important that we went out broadly,” she said. “I hope that it will raise trust in the board because we’re being extremely deliberate in how we’ve set up the search process using the best advice possible from people who’ve done successful high quality searches nationally.”

Harris told Salem Reporter a confidential process can also give the board more focused and useful feedback to consider.

A typical public hiring process might yield hundreds of forms from community members based on their impressions from a brief presentation at a meet-and-greet. 

Harris said that prioritizes hiring a candidate who makes a good impression during public presentations, which may not be the most relevant trait for succeeding as a superintendent.

School board members, presented with that volume of comments, are more likely to listen to the people in the community they already know when weighing a decision, he said.

“A large amount of feedback is not necessarily more effective or more helpful,” he said.

Part of the firm’s process is hiring an investigative agency to conduct background checks on finalist candidates.

“I can’t think of a time where I ever had a community member or a board member find a piece of factual information about a candidate that hasn’t come to light,” he told Salem Reporter. “They’re pretty well vetted by the time they get to the community.”

This article was updated with a link to the feedback form for the superintendent candidate profile.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.