Search firm president commends LA Unified on choice of King
Mike Szymanski | January 22, 2016
While superintendent searches for large school districts typically end with outsiders getting the job, the president of the firm working with LA Unified said the insider chosen, Michelle King, a district veteran of 30 years, was a commendable match.
“We spent more time than usual to come up with a profile of the characteristics that the community wanted, and I think the school board found someone who matched that list very well,” said Hank Gmitro, president of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates of Rosemont, Ill. “They were very thoughtful and thorough in the potential candidates, and I believe they found the strongest candidate possible.”
In reviewing the process, Gmitro said his firm has now placed 45 superintendents in the nation’s 100 largest school districts. The search in LA Unified started with about 100 applications, the most of any search conducted by his firm, before the board narrowed the list to 25, then to a handful of finalists.
Although the process was similar to most other searches, Gmitro said, the scope was immense. In smaller districts two of their staff could interview the staff and community and develop the Leadership Profile in a few days. This time, it required six people working a full two weeks, and then time to compile thousands of surveys in five different languages.
“The profile took a longer time to develop and make, but it was useful during the interviews,” Gmitro said.
In retrospect, picking King seemed like a no-brainer, but Gmitro said the school board was determined to find as many qualified candidates as possible and making sure the best person was chosen — even if that candidate came from within.
Gmitro estimated that about 60 percent of searches for larger school districts lead to an outsider. But, he added, if a district knows who they’re going to pick internally, it generally doesn’t go through a formal search process, which is what happened at LA Unified.
“Working with them was enjoyable,” Gmitro said about the seven diverse and opinionated school board members. “Yes, they each have their strong opinions, but they were very professional and listened to each other a lot about their thought process.”
It was essentially only Gmitro and two other staff members along with the school board who knew who the candidates were. Typically, Gmitro walked a candidate into a meeting and let the school board members conduct the interview. Then, he would spend about 45 minutes helping the school board assess their initial thoughts about the candidates.
“I would record what their first impressions were, the strengths and questions that the board members had,” Gmitro said. “I thought the board was very professional.”
And they were tireless, he said. Often discussions started in the mornings and continued through early evening, with a discussion afterward. Many of the sessions went into weekends and during the winter holiday break.
As diverse as the school board is, Gmitro said, “It was important to them to listen to each other a lot and hear what the factors were in their decision making. It was important to hear what mattered to each other. They saw that all their opinions were grounded in what was best for the district.”
It didn’t help when media, particularly the Los Angeles Times, speculated on the potential candidates, he said, adding, “Much of the speculation was not accurate anyway. I heard from some individuals, that it only caused some anxiety for potential candidates and the people in their districts. I respected the media outlets that didn’t play into the speculation; there was no purpose to it.”
Board President Steve Zimmer confirmed that the outside speculation was mostly wrong and caused more problems for him than it did for finding the right person for the job. He concluded that the Times’ lists of potential candidates ultimately didn’t hurt the process although the identity of one finalist was not among any the Times mentioned.
“It comes with the territory, and I realize that people really want to know,” Gmitro said about media speculation. “But it is the board’s mandate to pick the right person, and they had to do it in private. The speculation only created difficulty for the people who were named and their communities.”
Hazard Young cited a cost of $160,000 for the entire search, and about $1,000 a day for more days than expected. Gmitro said the search went slightly over the expected time schedule, but his firm did not charge the district any more money.