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Published: Thursday, 1/26/2006

Board poised to start search for a new chief

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Sykes Sykes
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The new Toledo Board of Education, staring at a mountain of major challenges, tonight expects to begin the process of looking for a new superintendent to lead the cash-strapped district.

Many expect the search to be long, expensive, and arduous given the many problems the new district leader will face.

Among them: a school board that's in conflict, multimillion-dollar budget deficits, employee layoffs, plummeting student enrollment, maintaining a massive building construction project, and the possibility of asking voters to approve a new operating tax levy this year.

Added to that, several large urban districts in the country are seeking superintendents, which could reduce the pool of available qualified applicants.

Board of education member Larry Sykes, the only current member who has participated in a past superintendent search, says it took about 12 months to agree on and hire outgoing Superintendent Eugene Sanders in August, 2000. Mr. Sykes said it's doubtful the board will find and agree on a new superintendent by the end of this academic year.

"The other problem in getting a superintendent is what I call CAVE people - citizens against virtually everything - and no superintendent will want to come in with two of them on the board," Mr. Sykes said of two of the new board members: Darlene Fisher, who is now board president, and Robert Torres.

"Anyone coming in here is going to say, 'I have a [projected] $19 million deficit, I have a board that is not communicating, I have to pass a levy, and I have to follow Eugene Sanders,'‚óŹ" he said.

Mr. Sykes, the most veteran board member, said another concern he has is that a new candidate will want too high a salary because of the challenges facing the school district.

Mr. Sanders' last day at the helm of the 30,775-student system is Aug. 31.

He previously said he is leaving because of the change in members on the board. Ms. Fisher and Mr. Torres were supported for election by a self-proclaimed watchdog group called the Urban Coalition, which vehemently opposed many of Mr. Sanders' recommendations and campaigned against nearly every tax levy the school district put on the ballot the last several years.

Ms. Fisher, a founder of the Urban Coalition, downplayed the group's past criticisms and dismissed Mr. Sykes' claim that the board is fractured.

Today's special meeting, set for 6 p.m. at the district's administration building, is "for all five of us to come together and agree upon a plan on the search for the new superintendent," she said. "I think we are all going to be working for the same goals. Definitely, we have issues we have to talk about throughout the district."

Mr. Torres said he hopes tonight's meeting will produce "a clearly defined picture of how to proceed."

He also said he wants to create a search committee with "community representation" but declined to elaborate.

Henry Duvall, the director of communications for the Council of Great City Schools, said the situation in Toledo is typical of other urban school systems where a superintendent has decided to leave.

"A superintendent has so many challenges, you have to have a school board that is in sync," he said. "Some have said being an urban superintendent is the hardest job in America because you have to deal with so many societal issues - homeless children, poverty, crime, and financial problems."

Mr. Duvall noted that the average tenure of a large urban school superintendent in the United States is about 33 months.

The other two Toledo Board of Education members, Deborah Barnett and Steven Steel, who also is newly installed, have held off on listing qualities they would like to see in a new superintendent.

All five board members have said it's likely they will use an executive search firm.

The school system in Grand Rapids, Mich., which has 22,500 students, began looking for a new superintendent in October. Board President Amy McGlynn said the district would have been lost without a consultant to guide the process.

"There is no way I would have found the candidates I got without them," Ms. McGlynn said. "It is all well and good to say, 'We want a superintendent who can walk on water and please everyone all the time,' but that's not reasonable."

Ms. Fisher said the board tonight will discuss hiring a consultant or executive search firm to assist with the search.

"That is the tradition, but I want to look and see what the cost of these firms is, especially since we have to be careful of the money we do and don't have."

In 1999, TPS spent $37,812 for a consultant to conduct a national superintendent search and $8,500 for travel expenses for two of its applicants.

Francine Lawrence, president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, said she has concerns about the current atmosphere frightening away some applicants and hopes the board will not rule out candidates from the private sector.

"A board that is coming from two or three different directions - I think that would cause a superintendent to walk away from a district more than any factor," Ms. Lawrence said. "It will negatively impact employee morale if there is a significant pay increase for the superintendent position while employees have gone 3 1/2 years without a pay increase."

Mr. Sanders, who receives pay and compensation totaling $194,179 annually, said he is willing to help in the search for his replacement but has not been asked to. He said he is confident qualified candidates will apply.

"Clearly, the mix of the board, the immediate challenges faced by the district - financial, labor issues, or the community-related issues - are all things a [potential] superintendent will look at," he said. "It doesn't mean the district will not be able to attract a high quality leader."

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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