Leader Blues

Saturday, October 24, 2009

TOP STORY >> PCSSD seeks district chief

By JONATHAN FELDMAN
Leader staff writer

The Pulaski County Special School District began its search for a new superintendent this week with public hearings throughout the district.

Two sparsely attended hearings were held on Wednesday — one in Jacksonville, where five people showed up, and another one in Sherwood, where two people attended, including Mayor Virginia Hillman.

The hearings were led by McPherson and Jacobson Executive Recruitment and Development, a Nebraska firm that specializes in filling top administration positions for public organizations, such as school districts and municipal hospitals. The firm is paid $20,000 to lead the search.

The school board hopes to hire a permanent superintendent in February to be ready for the start of school that fall, according to Thomas Jacobson, the search firm’s owner.

The school board has named Rob McGill as acting superintendent. He has not decided if he wants to be considered for the permanent position.

Jacobson’s son is an Air Force captain who has been stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base for the last four years and owns a home in the Northlakes subdivision in Jacksonville.

So Jacobson is aware of the district’s problems. He said that it won’t be simple to recruit a superintendent.

“The district has a lot of positives, but it also has a lot of challenges,” he said, pointing out that issues like desegregation requirements and the district’s economic disparities are not as prominent in other districts that he has recruited for as they are in the PCSSD.

Jacobson has been teaching at the university level for nearly 20 years. He instructs education administrators through an online program at the University of Nebraska.

The hearings are based on three questions: What are the positive things about the district? What skills should a new superintendent have? What should the new superintendent know to be successful?

People who were unable to attend Wednesday’s meetings can answer those questions online at www.macnjake.com, the search firm’s Web site, where a community input form can be completed and e-mailed to Jacobson.

The firm worked for the district before. Jacobson told the crowd that he was involved in the search for a new superintendent when James Sharpe was hired by the school board.

Sharpe, who resigned earlier this year, was not recommended by the firm.

“(Sharpe) did not make the short list, but the board wanted to interview him anyway,” he said.

“We bring the names of everyone, we make a short list, then we begin our reference and background checks,” Jacobson explained.

“We represent the school board, not any candidate. I don’t know if (McGill) will be applying,” he said.

The Jacksonville hearing was dominated by the city’s desire to break away from PCSSD and form its own school district.

“We almost need to have two conversations: what the new Jacksonville district needs and what the old one (PCSSD) needs,” said Daniel Gray of the Jacksonville Education Foundation.

Former Superintendent Bobby Lester of Jacksonville also attended. He suggested that the new superintendent should address the city’s lagging facilities.

“Clean up the schools, pay some taxes and maybe build new schools,” he said.

Ivory Tillman, president of the NAACP’s Jacksonville chapter, said he hoped a new superintendent could reverse some of the damaging policies the school board has created under McGill’s tenure.

“They dismantled the (Jacksonville Boys and Girls Middle School), transferred the principals out of town. It seems they were trying to promote the things we were trying to get away from,” Tillman said.

He was referring to former Jacksonville Boys Middle School Principal Mike Nellums and girls middle school principal Kim Forrest, who were both reassigned when they voiced concerns about the district’s reversal of its support for gender-based education after only one year of implementation.

Gray agreed with Tillman about the closing of the middle schools. “You had something that worked and then it was gone,” he said.

Rizelle Aaron, who also belongs to the NAACP, suggested that a new superintendent be “sympathetic to minority groups.”

Sherwood Mayor Hillman said that a new superintendent must have “a proven track record of bailing out another district because we are almost in crisis mode.”

“I want the reputation to improve,” she said. “The parents in this district do not have trust that their kids will get a quality education.”

Hillman wants school officials to understand the importance of good schools. “Good schools mean good business,” she said.

Quality schools are the basis of a strong community, she said.

She said Sylvan Hills High School’s recent improvement on its benchmark exams prove the district can get better.

But perhaps the mayor’s most valuable advice she had to offer to a new superintendent is that “he better have thick skin.”