Salem-Keizer School Board to interview superintendent candidates this weekend

The Salem-Keizer School Board will convene Saturday behind closed doors to conduct its first round of interviews with a slate of candidates vying to succeed Superintendent Christy Perry.

But ahead of the latest milestone in the search for a new superintendent, the board chair, district administrators and an assisting national search firm would not disclose how many people applied, or even whether any of them hail from the state.

Board Chair Ashley Carson Cottingham told Salem Reporter this week that she cannot share the number of applicants.

“It was a decent number — a great, talented, high-quality pool,” Cottingham said in an interview.

Hank Harris, president of Human Capital Enterprises, the district’s contracted executive search firm, said he could not divulge the number of applicants because executive sessions with the board are confidential. 

Their silence on the matter stems from a Nov. 8, 2022 meeting, when the board unanimously approved a confidential search process at the recommendation of their contracted search firm.

According to Harris,superintendent candidates applied during the recruiting period and the firm determined which ones most closely aligned with the superintendent profile — a document approved by the board that states the qualities the next superintendent should have. 

The firm interviewed the candidates it identified as the strongest before providing a Jan. 21 presentation to the board on the slate. 

“We reviewed all applications — not just the ones that were invited for preliminary interviews by the consultants,” Cottingham said. “Then we determined a certain number to move forward to first-round interviews, which we’ll have this Saturday.”

She estimated Saturday’s closed-door meeting would last at least 12 hours.

“My head is around it. I’ve done a lot of hiring and interviewing, just not on a school board,” said Cottingham, who has prior experience on congressional committees in Washington, D.C. and currently works as the deputy director for the state Office of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman. 

Harris said he will be on hand at the start of Saturday’s meeting to “orient” board members on what questions they should ask candidates. 

Cottingham said she is ready and will be paying close attention to what the candidates say.

“For me, it’s really how closely the candidate aligns to that ideal profile that we worked to put together. Those, to me, are the core competencies for this role,” she said. 

The profile contains characteristics of the next superintendent — “experienced,” “steadfast,” “authentic,” to name a few — that were born out of district constituent feedback and assistance from the firm.

She will also be examining the candidates’ personalities during the Saturday interview rounds.

“When you interview, you can’t help but witness somebody’s personality come through in the process,” Cottingham said. “A number of the items we have detailed on the ideal profile, which really focuses on stating who they need to be as a person.”

She pointed to some of the profile’s specifics points, including whether the candidate “demonstrated political acumen in order to affect legislation” or is someone who “demonstrates a long-term commitment to the community through visibly participating” in things like school events. 

Cottingham also said it was important for the next superintendent to be student-focused and pointed to Raylin Brennan and Isaac McDonald, the two student advisers on the board, who are part of the search efforts. 

After the marathon rounds of interviews, Harris said he would participate in a debriefing of the board, which would include members reflecting on what they had heard during the interviews before winnowing down the field of applicants.

“I don’t know how many there will be, but typically, the finalists are between one and four scheduled for community interviews,” Harris said. 

Those community-based interviews — which are also confidential — will last all day Feb. 7, according to the district’s website.

“The candidates, when they apply, are told that this will be a confidential process — that in no way would anybody in their current employment or anyone else know they applied for this position,” Cottingham said. “That requires us to make sure that anyone we’re inviting to participate understands that this promise has been made. If they’re going to participate in the community-based panels, that individual needs to sign that they will not be revealing any information, names, etc., of the candidates.”

The candidates that participate in those community-led sessions will be interviewed by the board in another closed session Feb. 11. 

Sometime next month, a decision on who the next Salem-Keizer Public Schools superintendent could be made by a  date that is “to be determined,” according to the district’s website. 

The chosen candidate is expected to begin work July 1.

Whoever the leading candidate is, Harris noted one of the top qualities his firm looks for is longevity. 

“It’s hard to accomplish a lot as a superintendent if they’re there only six to 12 months,” he said. “We want a superintendent who will step into the gig and be there for four to five years.”

Cottingham spoke generally about the importance of the superintendent’s job in these times. She noted state funding, collective bargaining and ramifications of learning during the pandemic are all issues the new leader could face

“There’s a lot going on,” she said. “Some of that will be resolved by the time the next superintendent takes their seat, but all of those things will still be important. It will take the person a while to get up to speed, obviously.”

STORY TIP OR IDEA? Contact Reporter Kevin Opsahl by email at [email protected]

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Kevin Opsahl is the education reporter for Salem Reporter. He was previously the education reporter for The Mail Tribune, based in Medford. He has reported for newspapers in Utah and Washington and freelanced. Kevin is a 2010 graduate of Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, and is a native of Maryland.