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By Diana Diamond

School Superintendent Hires Need to be Thoroughly Vetted

Uploaded: May 11, 2018

The Palo Alto School District is now undergoing its third hire for a superintendent in a little more than a decade. Maybe it’s time for school board members to think about improving their hiring process because two of the previous superintendents, Kevin Skelly and Max McGee, didn’t work out.
PAUSD Board President Ken Dauber told me that the board had spent five to six hours interviewing their successful candidate, Don Austin, currently the superintendent of Palo Verdes Peninsula Unified School District. Yes, the board checked on all his references, Dauber said, as well as “talked to people on the off list,” and after discussing pros and cons, settled on Austin.
But no board member made a trip to Palo Verdes to informally talk with some of the teachers and parents that Austin had worked with. Dauber said the idea of going down for a visit was discussed at the beginning of the year, but then discarded as not being necessary.
I think any potential superintendent needs full vetting, and that vetting should be significantly more than a one-on-five interview in Palo Alto. Some blogs on this website indicate that Austin had some problems with his district, which need to be examined.
The appointment is subject to final board approval at the Tuesday, May 22 meeting, so there still is time for more probing.
I’ve hired a number of employees in my professional life, and while I dutifully called the references listed, the reality is that most of us only put down our friends and supporters as references, not our critics. True to form, the references calls inevitably resulted in high regard for the candidate (“Great guy! Well liked. Hard worker.”)
Second, a school superintendent’s job, particularly in Palo Alto, is a tricky one – he or she has to listen to lots of constituencies -- teachers, students, administrators and especially Palo Alto parents, whose school standards are very high. A face-to-face interview with this candidate cannot successfully determine how well he worked with constituencies in his Palos Verdes position.
Third, what about personal characteristics – how does the candidate relate to children? Is he difficult to get along with? Is the candidate focused too much on protecting teachers – or only doing what the board wants?
The other concern I have, not only with the Palo Alto School District but also with other top public official hires (city managers, community college chancellors, etc.), is that their new salaries are usually a bit higher than what their predecessors were getting. But often the predecessors, especially the long-time ones, were awarded yearly increases that were based not only on across-the-board raises, but also on merit. We’ve had several public officials in town that achieved higher salaries because they did so well.
So why should a new superintendent (or city manager) get the benefit of a predecessor’s previous positive performance? For example, shouldn’t the salary instead be based on say, the cost-of-living increases since the previous superintendent was hired or some other established formula?
Just asking.