The Howard County school board will officially launch its search for a new superintendent this week.
The board has hired Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates Ltd. to conduct the search to replace schools chief Michael E. Hickey, who has headed the 49,000-student district for 16 years. Hickey, 61, will retire from the school system June 30.
Unlike some school systems that want to make major changes, Howard's board members are seeking someone who will maintain "continuous improvement," but not "reinvent the wheel," one member said last week.
And the board wants stability -- someone who will stay a number of years.
The company plans to place an advertisement for prospective superintendent candidates Wednesday in Education Week, a publication widely read by educators.
The ad will be simple, soliciting applications that the firm, based in Northfield, Ill., will whittle down. By placing news of the opening on its Web site, board Vice Chairman Stephen Bounds said, the company already has received 28 letters of interest.
Hazard, Young and Attea, which most recently conducted successful searches for superintendents in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, also is heading up the hunt for Baltimore County's new schools leader.
The company, which is being paid $40,000 plus expenses, has conducted more than 250 searches in the past 12 years.
Hickey said that although there might be some overlap in the Howard and Baltimore County searches, he didn't think either process would be jeopardized by the other.
"There will be some folks that will only be interested in us and not at all in Baltimore County. There will be some who are interested in them and not in us. And there will be a fairly good group in the middle that could probably go either way," he said.
"But they're two really different systems," Hickey said. "I don't think it will be a problem."
Although the search will officially start this week, Bounds said the board has done many hours of legwork to make sure the next superintendent is a fit for Howard County.
Before the search firm was hired last fall, staff members and others in the community were surveyed about what qualities they would like to see in the next superintendent. Then representatives of the company interviewed more community members about the school system's strengths and what kind of administrative leadership the next superintendent should offer.
Bounds said many parents have expressed preferences for traits that they would like to see in the next superintendent, such as effective communication skills and organizational management skills, and the ability and willingness to deal directly and fairly with faculty, staff and parents.
Another key element for community members is the ability of the new superintendent to address the achievement gap between groups of students and schools, Bounds said.
Like many school districts, Howard County is struggling to close the gap in test scores between minority and white students.
The district also has been hearing from disgruntled parents about inequities in older and newer county schools, which they say lead to inequities in learning.
"There's a lot of resources and a lot of efforts in place to close the various achievement gaps that exist," Bounds said. "Someone who has insight into that process, that would certainly be a plus for them."
Among other things, the board also is looking for someone who plans to stay with the school district, Bounds said. Howard County has had three superintendents in the past 53 years.
"Often superintendents are coming in to bring about major change," Bounds said. "That's really not the case here. Someone needs to come in and work with the excellent resources that are here to make the school district better."
Hickey would like his successor to demonstrate ability to carry out the district's efforts to improve academic achievement. But he doesn't want the new superintendent to feel as though he or she is a one-person show.
"And I would hope it would be someone that is also very much interested in empowering the schools, the principals and the school-improvement teams," Hickey said.
"And I would like to see someone that comes in and is very much a people person and can obviously meet the challenges that the job has and can do it in a way that will bring the staff along with him," he said.