Hamilton County school board elects new chairman

Dr. Steve Highlander speaks Friday, Aug. 19, 2016, at the Hamilton County Department of Education.

For the next year, Steve Highlander will be the chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Education and will lead the nine-member board as it looks to hire the district's next superintendent.

Highlander was unanimously elected to the position Tuesday night after school board member Rhonda Thurman declined a nomination for the job. The board also unanimously elected Karitsa Mosley Jones to serve as vice-chairwoman.

Following those votes, the board interviewed three search firms vying to assist the district in its superintendent search.

The Tennessee School Boards Association presented first, highlighting how the nonprofit organization knows the local landscape and has experience serving school boards across the state.

"We know the state," said Randy Bennett, general counsel at TSBA. "We know what your needs are as a school board."

TSBA is the cheapest of the applicants interviewed, with a flat cost of about $30,000. The group also has the least experience in large national searches, as they have not helped a large metro district find a superintendent in many years.

In searching for candidates, Bennett said TSBA will advertise with other school board associations across the nation, and will screen the candidates through a private committee before presenting a final list of applicants to the board.

Newly elected school board member Tiffanie Robinson asked if the group could help find a non-educator for the job, if that is one of the options the board wanted to consider.

Tammy Grissom, executive director of TSBA, said in her 27 years at TSBA, a school board has never asked for a non-traditional candidate, But, if the board wants to hire a non-educator, the group will work to help find one, she said.

Tom Jacobson, co-founder and owner of McPherson & Jacobson LLC, presented next, saying "quality education begins with quality leadership."

He said his firm, which has helped with more than 650 searches, has successfully found superintendents for large, complex school districts like Hamilton County. He boasted about the high satisfaction rate reported by school boards they've helped, and the length of stay of the superintendents placed.

The firm estimates it will cost about $52,000 for it to conduct the search.

After the board members decide what they want in their next leader, Jacobson said he will send the information to the 100 consultants his firm has across the country. After an initial list of names is compiled through the network and other advertising venues, the firm will perform an extensive vetting of each candidate, going far beyond contacting references.

He added that the group has placed several non-educators in superintendent roles, and added that the challenges facing Hamilton County Schools, like the district's achievement gap, will be attractive to certain candidates who like a challenge.

The last group to present was Coleman Lew and Associates Inc. Representatives emphasized throughout their presentation how the firm will utilize target recruitment in searches, and will not wait for candidates to apply.

Shana Plott, a managing director at the firm, said the most important part of the search process is for the board to define what it wants in the district's next leader. Once that is determined, her firm will go out and find top candidates.

The group admitted to usually being the most expensive, estimating the search will cost about $60,000, but said the level of work it does has set the company apart in the market. The firm handles lots of higher education searches and said it has conducted one superintendent search a year for the last three years. Limiting the number of superintendent searches employees do is intentional, Plott said, boasting of the quality of candidates they've produced.

Kenneth Carrick, managing director at Coleman Lew, ended the interview by reminding the board they are the hiring authority, but saying his firm is there to provide them with the best options other firms may not be able to find.

"Our job is to make your job easy in the sense that we do a lot of leg work," Carrick said. "Our job is then to make your job hard in that you have a tough choice."

Each of the three groups interviewed also talked about the importance of community involvement.

TSBA said they would ask the board which community groups and stakeholders they should talk to, adding that they would like to talk to a diversity of district employees before beginning the formal search.

Plott said Coleman Lew and Associates Inc. would also include the community early in the process and during the final interviews. She said each of the final candidates have historically participated in a community forum.

Jacobson talked the most about community involvement, saying the voice of stakeholders and employees is important in the search.

During the final stages of the selection, he said it's important for candidates to sell themselves to the community, along with the board. And after hiring a superintendent, he added that the firm will help to develop a new evaluation for the superintendent, providing both the board and community with clear expectations.

The board will discuss the interviews Thursday, and may vote to retain one of the search firms and begin the search process.

The board also voted to purchase property adjacent to Ooltewah High School, providing the girls' soccer team with room to practice starting next fall. The land can also be used to expand the school as needed. Thurman noted that Ooltewah's portion of the county is experiencing rapid growth.

Ooltewah girls' soccer team has appeared before the board twice in the past several months asking for help, as the team has not had adequate practice space at the school for about 15 years. The school has limited space, and the boys' football program has received priority. Parents of the girls' soccer team began to threaten a Title IX lawsuit if the board did not take action.

The 5-acre parcel of land the board purchased was appraised for $1 million, according to Lee McDade, assistant superintendent of Hamilton County Schools. The board voted to purchase the field for $925,000.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or krainwater@timesfreepress.com. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.