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Sarasota Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020 1 year ago

Superintendent search firms narrowed to two

The school board will hear presentations from Florida School Boards Association and Ray & Associates, Inc. at its Feb. 4 meeting.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

The Sarasota County School Board officially began its search Tuesday for a superintendent.

The board narrowed its choices for a search firm from seven to two: Tallahassee-based Florida School Boards Association and Ray & Associates Inc., which is based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and just completed a superintendent search for Hillsborough County.

The board has requested a presentation from each firm to be held at its 6:30 p.m., Feb. 4 meeting. The board will hear from the firms first, which will allow those attending the meeting time to speak during the public comments portion of the meeting after the presentations.

“It will be good to do it at the board meeting because maybe more people will be there than at a workshop,” Board Member Jane Goodwin said. “It will allow us to be transparent with the residents.”

The school district is being being run now by Mitsi Corcoran, the district’s chief financial officer and assistant superintendent, after former Superintendent Todd Bowden stepped down following allegations that he mishandled a sexual assault investigation. 

After the district sent out a request for letters of interests from search firms, seven nationwide responded. The board narrowed it down to two during its discussions because of the success rate each firm has had in Florida.

Although all board members supported the decision to have FSBA present, board members Eric Robinson and Bridget Ziegler did so with some concerns.

The school board hired FSBA when it was searching for its previous superintendent. During the hiring process, Bowden was investigated for sexual harassment allegations from when he was director of Suncoast Technical College. 

“FSBA is very well versed, but I do have some heartburn on some elements that occurred last time,” Ziegler said. “However, I want to respect the fact that they know the candidate pool very well, and they know the Florida sunshine.”

Additionally, Ziegler said FSBA was the most expensive firm, but the importance of the search would outweigh the potential cost. Robinson agreed with Ziegler and said he had two questions he’d want to clarify with FSBA representatives before he would give his approval.

Other board members expressed concerns with Iowa-based Ray & Associates but said that the group’s experience working with Hillsborough County was a positive. Ultimately, Hillsborough County hired a candidate from Clay County, in northern Florida, with extensive experience in Duval County.

Although board members had differing opinions on which search firm would be best, they all agreed that whatever firm is chosen should recruit both from within and outside of the district.

Questions arose over whether individual board members were allowed to speak with potential candidates, particularly if they work in the district.

School district attorney Art Hardy said any board member can legally speak with any candidate individually, but the board could make its own internal rules to not have individual conversations with candidates.

“My fear is that there’s a perception that there is a favored internal candidate already [and that] we may close the door to people outside the district applying,” Robinson said. “We may lose people that would have been great applicants.”

Board Chair Caroline Zucker agreed with Robinson and stated individual meetings could send the wrong message.

“It behooves us that we should not be talking to possible candidates because it would give the perception that there’s already lobbying being done,” Zucker said.

Hardy said that the board should make clear to whichever search firm is chosen that the search is open and that the board will give no preferential treatment to an internal employee.

In the meantime, all board members agreed the search should progress quickly. 

Zucker said she’d like the search to be wrapped up by June or July, so the new superintendent could be on board for budget season.      Corcoran, the interim superintendent, is being paid an annual salary of $207,000 and about $1,100 in expenses a month. Her tenure as acting superintendent can be ended with a simple majority vote of the board.

After the board hears presentations and community input at its Feb. 4 meeting, it will direct Hardy to draw up a contract for one of the two firms.

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