How COVID-19 could impact superintendent searches at Hamilton Southeastern and Westfield

MJ Slaby
Indianapolis Star

In March 2020, the search for the next superintendent at Avon Community Schools was just starting.

The school board met with the Indiana School Boards Association to create a plan, said Kim Woodward, who was board vice president at the time.

“We laid out a timeline that was all in person,” she said.

Then the pandemic happened. And Avon became the first district in the state to close its buildings due to the coronavirus.

The school board altered their timeline and moved virtual, just like K-12 classes across the state. The district later hired Scott Wyndham, who was an assistant superintendent at Avon and led finance and operations for the district. He started July 1, 2020.

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While there were multiple changes to the process, it ended up just 30 days behind the original schedule, said Woodward, who is now the board president.

Nearly a year later, the coronavirus is still impacting the way schools operate including during the biggest time for superintendent searches.

The busiest time for searches is from the start of January to the end of the school year, said Michael Adamson director of board services for the Indiana School Boards Association.

In Hamilton County, two districts – Hamilton Southeastern Schools and Westfield Washington Schools – are both in the early stages of superintendent searches, and the school boards are aiming to have a new leader start in July. Elsewhere in Central Indiana, Edinburgh Community Schools is also looking for a superintendent.

Hamilton Southeastern Superintendent Allen Bourff announced in late 2020 that he plans to retire at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

As the searches are starting, school boards and search committees will have to factor in the pandemic.

“Certainly, the process has been impacted and continues to be impacted,” Adamson said. “(But) the number of searches hasn’t decreased from what I typically see this time of year.”

Finding a district leader

Hiring a superintendent is one of the biggest roles of a school board. The superintendent is the school employee that the board interacts with most and the person who manages the day-to-day operations of the district.

Nationally, the average tenure of a school superintendent is about four years, and Adamson said that in Indiana it is often longer than that. Per a 2019 survey from the Indiana School Boards Association, roughly a third of superintendents in the state have six to ten years of experience and another third have 11 to 20 years.

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That means that not every school board member will do a superintendent search while on the board or do more than one. So, boards often turn to a search firm to help them navigate the process, Adamson said, who also does searches as part of the state school boards association and worked on Avon's search.

In Hamilton County, HSE hired B.W.P. & Associates in December to help with the search, and Westfield Washington hired University Superintendent Search Team. 

HSE will pay B.W.P. $18,000 plus expenses up to $7,500 for the search. Those amounts don't include some costs such as travel costs for superintendent candidates, some advertising fees, and additional services from B.W.P. such as planning sessions with the new hire.

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University Superintendent Search Team is made up of education faculty from Ball State, Indiana, Indiana State and Purdue universities at the Jan. 12 board meeting. The university search team works exclusively with Indiana districts and only charges school boards for meal and travel costs.

How involved the search team is depends on its agreement with the district.

New questions for school boards

The pandemic has caused school boards to consider different factors. At Avon, Woodward, who had been part of two previous superintendent searches, said there were different skills that were high on the priority list this time.

One example was social media presence and expertise, which was previously considered as nice, but not a top requirement.

Former Avon Superintendent Margaret Hoernemann had planned to retire at the end of the 2019-20 school year before the  first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Indiana. Here, Hoernemann speaks during a March 9, 2020 joint press conference between the school district, the Indiana State Department of Health and the Hendricks County Health Department.

In 2020, she said it was high on the list as social media became one of the top ways the district communicated with families and the community. Also at the top of the list was how a candidate thought about and defined safety.

Avon was the first district in Indiana to close buildings due to the coronavirus and also one of the first districts in the country to reopen buildings at the start of the school year.

Not all districts have the same approach to safety and to working with local health departments, she said adding that the new superintendent and the district need to have a basic philosophical agreement and approach to the pandemic.

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While Gov. Holcomb ordered all schools to close in the spring, state leaders have largely been hands-off since then, leaving decisions about opening schools to district leaders with the advice of local health departments. In a majority of cases, those decisions about if schools should be in-person, virtual or hybrid falls to superintendents.

Plus, Woodward said the board had a new challenge in trying to figure out the best interview format. Woodward said the Avon school board narrowed it to four candidates: two in-person and two out-of-state. She said members wondered if it would be fair to have local candidates interview in-person and out-of-state candidates interview virtually.

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“I told my fellow board members, I can’t hire a candidate that I haven’t met face-to-face,” Woodward said.

So the board decided to slow down the process and see if doing all the interviews in-person would be possible, she said. In the end, the board cut one out-of-state candidate and the other withdrew their application, so Avon was left with just in-state candidates who could do in-person, socially distant interviews. The problem solved itself, Woodward said.

New hire, new considerations

Candidates also have pandemic-related considerations. 

Lynn Lehman, a faculty member at Ball State University and a member of the University Superintendent Placement, said he knows of several superintendents who delayed their retirements, meaning the openings are delayed. Superintendents are dedicated to their districts and didn't want to leave during the pandemic, he said.

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That was the reason that one candidate dropped out of the Avon search, Woodward said.

Lehman said he thinks there are multiple variables related to the pandemic that potential candidates will consider when deciding if they will apply. 

On top of not wanting to leave their current district during a challenging time, he said if they accept a new position, they are making decisions for a new community where there is no right answer and "no assurance that it will be the right (answer) tomorrow."

“It’s a tough way to start a job,” he said to the Westfield school board during his interview. “I think people are a little bit cautious.”

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Plus, search leaders said said there are the challenges of moving their families to a new community and trying to be engaged in the community during a pandemic.

However, search leaders said it's unclear how much weight these variables will have on a candidate's decision to apply. Plus, Lehman said that weight candidates might give to these factors now could be different than it was earlier in the pandemic.

Ron Barnes, founder of B.W.P and a member of the firm's search committee for HSE, said he hasn't noticed a hesitation from candidates on moving in his recent searches. He added that if they apply, they have likely thought it over and are eager to make that change.

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Adamson added that while earlier in the pandemic he did see applicants withdraw or districts postpone searches, it’s hard to gauge if that impact will continue as the pandemic does.

“Today I don’t think it will have much of an impact,” he said. “I think that people understand that public education in Indiana and elsewhere are always subject to emergencies.”

Applying during COVID-19

What’s too early to tell is the impact the pandemic will have on the overall candidate pool for HSE and Westfield.

In general, a majority of candidates who apply for superintendent jobs in Indiana are from Indiana, search firm leaders said, adding that out of state candidates are often from bordering states or have ties to Indiana.

Sherry Grate became the Westfield Washington superintendent in 2016 and retired from the district on Jan. 1, 2021. Chris Baldwin is the current interim superintendent for the school district.

So far, applications for HSE superintendent are coming from in and out of state, Barnes said.Westfield has not yet posted its application.

Superintendent search team members who spoke to IndyStar agreed that HSE and Westfield openings are attractive positions that will attract top candidates with previous superintendent experience due to their size, at nearly 22,000 and nearly 8,500 students respectively, as well as location.

These would be superintendents who are looking for bigger challenges and a career move that would be the pinnacle of their career, Adamson added.

In other searches, Barnes, who is working on the HSE search and is also a retired Indiana University professor, said he’s wrapping up a search for Monroe County Community Schools and said the search had an average number of candidates.

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However, if there are fewer candidates, Barnes said one reason might be that many superintendents are focused on the decisions at their current districts. He added those who do apply have likely thought about it and are serious.

For those who do apply, the biggest difference they may notice is the ​​​​interview process.

Superintendent search team members said that in general, applicant screenings and initial interviews are being done virtually. For the later rounds of interviews, it varies between virtual or in-person and socially distanced, but many are the latter, search leaders said.

Lehman added that the search team is also sometimes meeting with school boards virtually, and in-person meetings are socially distanced with masks. 

Barnes said he encourages school boards to do virtual interviews together, socially distanced, so that they can still discuss candidates in-person after the interview.

Plus, another part of the process that has changed are the community visits where school board members go to the place where a candidate is from to learn more about their relationships in the community. That has also gone virtual or become phone calls in some cases, Barnes said.

So while the searches go on, “the dynamics of the process have changed,” he said.

Applications for HSE superintendent are due Feb. 5. At Westfield, the school board met Tuesday with University Superintendent Search Team to discuss next steps. Lehman said once an application is ready, it will be posted to the district's website.

Call IndyStar education reporter MJ Slaby at 317-447-1586 or email her at mslaby@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mjslaby.