About a month ago, superintendent Steve Joel announced his unplanned retirement from Lincoln Public Schools. This Tuesday, the Lincoln Board of Education selected Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates (HYA) as the organization “to serve as their Superintendent Search Firm.” HYA beat out one other consulting firm, McPherson & Jacobson, although the competition did not seem to be fierce. In video of the board discussion and vote, Barb Baier states, “I don’t think we would make a mistake in choosing either,” echoed by Bob Rauner with, “We can’t go wrong in any significant way.” Nearly every board member made some variation on this sentiment or stated that they were “on the fence” in choosing. The vote was somehow unanimous though, and HYA will receive around $42,600 to aid the board in recruiting a new superintendent.
Before looking into why hiring HYA might be of specific concern, we should consider concerns surrounding superintendent search firms in general. While statistics are challenging to find, most superintendent consulting firms appear to be made up largely of former or current superintendents, and one study found that 44% of superintendent search consultants had been a superintendent of schools during their career. Career experience matters, but these firms perpetuate a disturbing cycle: superintendents are paid massive salaries, often followed by large retirement pensions or severance packages, only to be compensated yet again with taxpayer money when they are hired as recruiters. Dr. Joel did not wait for retirement to join a recruiting company; he has been a consultant for McPherson & Jacobson since 1996. And while “Mac ‘n Jake” did not win in LPS’s quest for a search firm, the given rationale was about superior analytics at HYA, not a conflict of interest in hiring Dr. Joel to find his replacement.
HYA’s concerning history was clear within one Google search, which calls to question the Lincoln Board of Education’s vetting process. In the board’s defense, they did ask each firm to name a recruitment that was particularly challenging, and how the firm overcame those challenges. HYA’s representative gave a vague answer, only specifying an instance when “one of our finalists was not honest with us.” He did not reference their challenging search for a Metro Nashville Public Schools superintendent, in which they selected John Covington as a contender. Covington was a highly criticized finalist, as he is remembered for his abrupt resignation from Kansas City Public Schools in 2011, which was a contributing factor to the district becoming first in the nation to lose accreditation. (Covington followed this by immediately signing a $1.5 million contract in Detroit, where he abused his financial incentives).
HYA also neglected to remember their recruitment challenges in Minneapolis in 2015. There, HYA recommended Sergio Paez without disclosing allegations of abuse in the district he’d previously led, which included staff beating children with special needs. Perhaps Hazard, Young, Attea, & Associates do not recall these challenging recruitments because their own president was a superintendent mired in controversy. HYA President, Glenn “Max” McGee resigned from the Palo Alto Unified School District in 2017 after mishandling a student sexual assault case and missing a deadline that cost his district $6 million.
This is not to suggest that McPherson & Jacobson have a stronger record. They have their own history of questionable superintendent picks, and, interestingly, their poor decision-making has even collided with that of HYA. HYA recommended Walter Milton, Jr. as superintendent of Flint City Schools in 2005. He lasted just over a year in that position before receiving a buy-out package from the district when they discovered that he had lied about his degrees, twice hired a person convicted of child molestation, and abused his financial incentives. This did not stop Milton from being hired as a superintendent in Illinois in 2007. While he did an equally terrible job there, McPherson & Jacobson put him on their short list as a superintendent candidate in Little Rock, Arkansas in 2011, disregarding his falsified academic qualifications and friendliness with predators. Milton was subsequently named as a great superintendent candidate by other consulting firms, including McPherson & Jacobson, who recommended him a second time to Little Rock in 2013. (McPherson & Jacobson eventually helped Little Rock hire Dexter Suggs, who was later discovered to have plagiarized his PhD.)
This troubling information about HYA and McPherson & Jacobson is the result of a bit of concerned Googling. It is not an extensive history, and it does not us address the growing number of other superintendent search firms that have also recommended harmful candidates to lead public schools, at a steep price. It is distressing that Lincoln Public Schools has agreed to pay a firm about the same as the yearly salary of a teacher for a few months of assistance in recruiting candidates for interviews. Taxpayers will foot this bill, even if HYA provides unqualified or troubling candidates.
The president of HYA was deemed unqualified to lead a school district, but is an integral part of who will next lead ours. This is a system of shocking overlap between recruiters and applicants, made up of mostly men (many mediocre), being paid to help one another get hired. Many of them move from district to district, earning growing salaries and changing little beyond a growing insistence that schools be treated as private companies.
School boards are pressured into believing that they must outsource their search to these companies to find the best candidates, rather than hiring from within the district or hiring a local board association – such as the Nebraska Association of School Boards – to do the recruitment.
We will continue to privatize education in all regards until the people rooting for the collapse of public schools are not the only ones willing to get involved.