The Baltimore County school board will interview six finalists for superintendent this month in a selection process challenged, experts say, by a short timetable and a board that appears divided over its allegiance to interim Superintendent Verletta White, who is seeking the job.
There are just six weeks before the board is legally required to have a new superintendent in place. Within the board, heated discussions are common, and it remains unclear whether White has enough votes to get the permanent job — or whether the state superintendent of schools would approve her if she did.
The school board has not made public the names of the candidates, and it could not be determined whether White is one of the six who will be interviewed. She did not respond to an inquiry.
“They are starting late,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools.
Glenn “Max” McGee, president of Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, a search firm that was in the running last spring to conduct the county’s search, said the chances “of recruiting a sitting superintendent are pretty small. … This time of year most superintendents have their contracts for next year and very few have out clauses.”
“I think a lot of folks have made up their minds that they will stay where they are,” Casserly said.
Nevertheless, McGee and Casserly said many qualified candidates are available who could be persuaded to come to the county. McGee said there could be a deputy or second in command of a district who would be eager to move up to a large, diverse district like Baltimore County.
Casserly said this is an unusual year for superintendent searches.
“While that time frame is starting a little late by most standards,” he said, “this year is really different in that the number of openings in other big school systems across the country is at its lowest level in years.”
That means the county won’t be vying with many other large districts for candidates. In addition, the county could attract someone who was a superintendent or high-level administrator and is now working for a nonprofit or a company. Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises, for example, was hired from an education nonprofit. She previously worked for the city schools, however.
Baltimore County’s search is being conducted by a national firm experienced in finding top administrators for school systems. Ray and Associates was hired in February and completed a quick series of public meetings to get input from citizens.
The school board issued a statement Monday evening saying that Ray and Associates had contacted 1,034 people in 48 states, including 47 people in Maryland. About 40 candidates applied.
Ray and Associates narrowed the field to nine candidates from California, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas and Tennessee. The board chose six to interview.
Most superintendent searches in large districts — Baltimore County has 113,000 students and is the 25th largest in the nation — are begun in November and concluded by March, the usual deadline for superintendents to inform school boards whether they will be leaving. In Maryland, superintendent contracts are for four years and must run from June 30 to July 1.
The search follows the departure of Dallas Dance, who resigned suddenly in April 2017. A year later he pleaded guilty to four counts of perjury for failing to disclose money he earned from consulting jobs — including payments from a company he helped win a no-bid contract with the school system. He served four months in jail.
The school board immediately chose White as its interim superintendent. She was a longtime Baltimore County teacher and administrator whose children attended the county schools. As soon as she took the job July 1, 2017, White said she would seek to be appointed to the permanent position. However, questions about her association with the Dance administration have followed her, and she acknowledged in November 2017 that she had not filed her financial disclosure forms correctly because she misunderstood the directions.
The board’s ethics review panel ruled later that she had violated two policies: one provision regarding financial disclosure rules and another because she “used the prestige of her office or public position for private gain” by accepting compensation from Education Research and Development Institute, a company that represents educational technology firms seeking contracts from school districts. Some of ERDI’s clients have contracts with the county school system.
Despite that blemish, White has gained ardent support among school system principals and administrators who vigorously lobbied for her to get the permanent job.
The board voted to give her the job a year ago, but Maryland State Superintendent Karen Salmon, in an unusual move, blocked the appointment, citing the ethics ruling and the fact that the school board had not completed an external audit.
That audit is now complete.
While some on the current board support White and are likely to vote to keep her, she doesn’t have the support of the board leadership. The contentious relationship between White and board chair Kathleen Causey has been barely contained during board meetings. Occasionally, they have been hostile and argumentative.
The school board — now partially elected — is deeply divided, and heated discussions are common. And even if White was approved, Salmon still may have reservations about her. Salmon did not respond to requests for comment.
Given all the circumstances, James Harvey, executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable, said he would advise the board to find a way to get some breathing room.
“It is a very tough situation if they have the divided board. I think it is a mistake to bring in a new superintendent in a rush process with a board that is divided. … It is rare that these rush processes work out very well.”
In addition, he said, he would imagine that in the Baltimore region the “level of suspicion of public officials is very high now among the public,” alluding to incidents of public corruption.
McGee, whose firm conducted the search in 2012 when Dance was hired, said the ways board members interact with one another and the superintendent are important.
“It’s one of the first questions we get from any applicant,” McGee said. “What are the board dynamics? What happened with the last superintendent? Does the board work well together? Does the board work well with the superintendent?”
Causey said in a text message that she believed the board was coming to consensus on more issues as time passed. She declined a request for an interview.
The search process remains secret, although various groups were asked to tell Ray and Associates their thoughts about who should be the next superintendent.
“We fully support the process as it was handled. We were happy to have had the opportunity to meet with Ray and Associates and add our thoughts as to traits, talents and skills and the direction BCPS should be moving,” PTA president Jayne Lee said in a statement. “We believe that finalists’ names should not be public as it could affect any current positions they are holding.”
While the timing and a divided board might not help the process, Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said he believes the position remains attractive.
“In spite of the Dallas Dance incident, it is a high-profile district and a successful district, and I think it would have a lot of appeal to a superintendent looking to move up to a district that size,” Domenech said. “You can only hope that in the crowd being brought forth there will be an applicant that everyone will agree on, and then — bingo, the problem is solved.”