Consultant to Farmington Schools trustees: ‘Make a decision that will last’

In a Monday presentation that lasted more than two hours, consultant Donna Oser laid out the details of the superintendent search process for Farmington Public Schools trustees.

None of the school board’s seven members has experienced a search from the inside, but will select a replacement for retiring Supt. Dr. George Heitsch. His last day is July 1.

Director of Leadership Development and Executive Search Services for the Michigan Association of School Boards, Oser has six years of experience with helping boards with the search process. She said she also has a tie to the district; her late father graduated from Farmington High School.

Her presentation examined the role of the board, with an emphasis on how trustees interact with each other and the superintendent.

“These are the kinds of things candidates look at… the extent to which board members get along with each other, get along with the superintendent, and are able to move a district forward,” Oser said. “I think there’s an opportunity in every leadership transition to tighten things down where they need to be tightened down.”

A National Association of School Boards list of danger points to consider include disagreements between the board and superintendent over authority and responsibility, a clear understanding of how much leeway the superintendent and staff have in meeting their responsibilities, personality conflicts between board members and between the superintendent and board members, and persistent disagreements about goals and strategies.

Oser said boards should acknowledge conflicts will happen and develop a way to resolve them and hold each other accountable.

“The best thing a board can do is hold itself accountable,” she said, and build systems to address disagreements. “Defining that goes a long way to showing that you are committed to excellence.”

Clear picture, open meetings

Oster said trustees should have a clear picture of the desired candidate, a clear idea about salary range, and a revised job description. Also, she said, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) now requires superintendents to hold a valid MDE administrator certification and accumulate 150 hours of professional learning every five years in order to renew their certificate.

An out-of-state or non-licensed candidate would have to go through additional steps before he or she was hired, Oser said.

While candidates’ names are kept private during the initial search process, Michigan’s “sunshine” laws require the release of names once a candidate has accepted an invitation to interview. School boards must conduct the interviews and deliberate during public meetings, Oser said.

Board vice president Terry Johnson asked how much hiring a search firm typically costs. Oser said actual costs have ranged from $4,500 to $90,000, depending on the size of the district and scope of services. “I would imagine you’d see proposals anywhere from $8,000 to $30,000.”

Board president Pam Green said the district received seven responses to a Request for Information from search firms and has sent out follow up requests for more information to narrow the list.

Forward thinking

Oser said the district will likely receive about 30 applications, from which the search firm will identify best candidates based on the district’s criteria. The search process includes opportunities for input from staff, parents, students, and other stakeholders, and trustees should not attend those stakeholder meetings, which would be led by the search firm.

“People support what they help to create,” Oser said. “Stakeholders need to have a voice in the process that is timely, but also has the balance in the role of the board. We want them to understand that the board cares about your perspective… and here are the points in the process where you can share your opinion.”

While the public will likely want officials to hire the candidate who interviews best, Oser urged officials to look beyond the “dazzle”. The more accurate indicators of potential success, she said, are leadership context (what needs to happen in the district), cognitive function (how well does the candidate think, learn, and solve problems), and past success in similar positions.

Oser also reminded officials what’s at stake, noting the positive correlation between a superintendent’s tenure and student achievement.

“You’re not making a decision for today in Farmington,” she said. “What you really want to do is make a decision for Farmington that will last five, seven, nine years. It’s important to be forward thinking in this process.”

Watch the workshop at


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