HSE school board starts interviews for next superintendent amid calls for more diversity

MJ Slaby
Indianapolis Star

Update, March 11: Hamilton Southeastern Schools extended its timeline for announcing the next superintendent. At a March 10 school board meeting, current Superintendent Allen Bourff said the announcement of the next leader won't be made until after spring break which ends April. 9

Original article, Feb. 17:

In the same week that the Hamilton Southeastern Schools superintendent wrote two controversial letters about Black Lives Matter, the district’s school board took its next steps in finding his replacement.

Current superintendent Allen Bourff announced in late November that he’d retire on June 30. He started at HSE in 2015.

On Feb. 11, B.W.P. & Associates, an educational leadership search firm hired by HSE, presented a slate of six top candidates to the school board, said Ron Barnes, the firm's founder and a member of the search committee for the HSE superintendent. Interviews for those candidates started Monday.

The board is expected to announce the next superintendent at its March 24 meeting. Both Barnes and Janet Pritchett, the president of the HSE school board, said they are happy with the search.

“We are really pleased with the candidates we have,” Pritchett said of the final six. “We will have a difficult decision.”

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While the HSE school board is required to conduct much of its business, including votes, in public, the hiring process is one of the things it can do in executive, or closed, sessions. Per state law, the board can “receive information about and interview prospective employees” in closed sessions.

HSE parents have said they want the district to have diverse superintendent candidates, however, the confidentially around hiring means that who the final six candidates are, and details about them won't be be released publicly.

Dr. Allen Bourff, superintendent of Hamilton Southeastern Schools

However, both Barnes and Pritchett told IndyStar the candidates themselves are diverse.

“We have a diverse pool,” Barnes said of the six candidates. “Both by gender and by race.”

Barnes said he's excited about the slate of candidates for HSE.

“This will be a good search," he said. "and I think people will be pleased when it’s all said and done."

Diversity in Indiana schools

The majority of public school superintendents in Indiana  – roughly 96% – were white as of the 2019-20 school year, which is the latest available data from the Indiana Department of Education.

Of the remaining superintendents, about 2.4% of the total were Black, or just seven of 286 superintendents.

This school year, HSE has nearly 22,000 students and nearly 1,700 are Black, per data from the Indiana Department of Education. Additionally, 2% of the district’s educators, which includes teachers as well as other certified staff, are Black, per IDOE data from 2019-20. Statewide, for the same school year, 4.6% of educators are Black.

Last week, Bourff, the current HSE superintendent, wrote a pair of letters to faculty addressing Black Lives Matter discussions in the classroom.

The first letter urged teachers to treat it as a political issue and cited parents’ concerns about their students being “indoctrinated.” The second letter included an apology and stressed the district’s support for Black lives. That letter called Black Lives Matter a social issue – but didn’t mention politics – and didn’t include specific teaching strategies like the first one.

The letters sparked outcry from many in the HSE community. About two dozen protesters were outside the school board meeting on Feb. 10, and a pair of Change.org petitions in support of Black Lives Matter now has nearly 5,500 signatures combined as of Tuesday afternoon.

Prioritizing diversity in HSE leadership

One of the petitions, “Black Lives Matter is NOT political," has nearly 3,000 signatures and specifically address the superintendent role. It asks for HSE "to replace Superintendent Bourff with someone who values HSE’s Black families just as much as our white families."   

Aaron Ferris, of Fishers, holds up a sign endorsing Black Lives Matter, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, during a protest involving about two dozen people who stood outside a Hamilton Southeastern Schools board meeting. "I want my kids taught Black history," Ferris said. "Black history is our history."

The petition calls for the next superintendent to "be someone of higher character, preferably a person of color who can lead our school into the future from a healthier perspective. The district needs to reopen submissions until they have valid and worthy candidates that fit these criteria."

Pritchett said she didn't know where the call to reopen submissions was coming from. She said the candidates are diverse, but added she couldn't provide more specifics on them due to the confidential hiring process.

She said she thought B.W.P. did an excellent job compiling candidates based on feedback from focus groups and the resulting list of  “desired qualifications and characteristics” for the next HSE superintendent.

On the list of 12 bullet points was “a person who will incorporate equity, diversity, and inclusivity as part of the landscape of the overall wellbeing of students, staff, and the community.”

Additional traits on the bullet list included a consensus builder who “listens to all voices, and understands and appreciates different points of view” as well as someone who understands the landscape of a suburban community “with multiple political agendas."

Pritchett said there are final candidates who are “well-versed in varying degrees” in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Amber Welch, a parent in the district who started the petition, told IndyStar that while she and others want Bourff out the door now, they know he's not the future and the future is what they are looking to.

"The bigger focus is: where do we go from here?" she said, adding that the superintendent search needs to be done in a way that represents more than the more than 30 parents who wrote emails that sparked the first letter. 

Parents who attended a protest ahead of the Feb. 10 board meeting also said they'd like to see more diversity in the district overall from the staff to the school board and superintendent.

Michael Adamson, director of board services for the Indiana School Boards Association, said there is a growing expectation among school boards that superintendent candidates to be willing to tackle issues in the areas of equity and inclusion.

However, he said attracting superintendents of color to Indiana schools has "always been a trying issue."

Impact of controversy

Pritchett said she's hopeful the controversy won’t impact the superintendent search.

She said the district will continue to do anti-racism work in the classroom and offer resources to teachers, but “we have some work to do internally.” Pritchett added that she wants the district to listen to Nataki Pettigrew, the chief equity and inclusion officer, and let her guide the way.

Lia Stallworth (left), with her husband, Dexter Stallworth, and daughter Disney Stallworth, stand in 20-degree temperatures Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, during a protest involving about two dozen people outside a Hamilton Southeastern Schools board meeting.

Pritchett added that she wants potential superintendent candidates to see that the district is doing the work and this job could be an opportunity for them to help HSE grow.

Barnes and Adamson said they don’t expect the fallout from Bourff’s letters to have an impact.

“Most superintendents aren’t fearful of that,” Barnes said, adding that the demographics of Fishers have changed, and the search firm is aware of that.

Adamson, who also leads searches for school districts but isn't involved with the HSE search, agreed. He added that the actions of one superintendent won’t impact the next person’s interest in the role.

Applicants for HSE superintendent

More than 50 candidates either were contacted by the search firm or expressed interest in the HSE superintendent position and 25 applied, Barnes told IndyStar.

Of those, he said candidates came from seven states and 12 were current superintendents, eight were assistant or deputy superintendents, two were principals and three were in other roles.

Barnes didn't provide specifics on demographics of the candidates other than to say there was racial and gender diversity in the final six candidates.

He told IndyStar while it used to be commonplace for districts to announce the final three candidates to the public, that is no longer the case because it can discourage candidates from applying. Pritchett agreed and said the board doesn't plan to publicly introduce final candidates.

“The process is completely confidential until we release the person we plan to hire," she said.

From the 25, the B.W.P. search team reviewed them and narrowed it down to 12 candidates for initial interviews with the search team. The team then narrowed it to the top six candidates for the board to do virtual interviews with.

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For comparison, Barnes said Monroe County Community School Corporation, a district of nearly 10,500 students in Bloomington, had 28 applications during its recent search with B.W.P. MCCSC announced its new superintendent earlier this month.

Barnes said of B.W.P. searches in the last two years, the numbers ranged from 54 candidates to 18, and the 18 was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

He stressed that the quality of candidates is more important than the quantity, and called the number of HSE candidates a normal amount for during the pandemic as well.

“It only takes one good one,” he said. “HSE is a very complex and large school corporation and people eliminate themselves and do not apply.”

Once the new superintendent is announced, Pritchett said she expects that person will do a listening tour to talk to and meet people in the community as past superintendents have done. However, she added the format may vary given COVID-19.

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