Board Needs Creative Questions

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," June 8, 1999, p. 11A

It’s final exam time.

No, not for you. For our next superintendent. Whoever she or he may turn out to be.

The Bickert Group is our superintendent search firm. Bickert and a School Board majority have proposed a schedule for the hiring process.

The schedule closes applications 10 days from now, June 18. Bickert will then narrow the list to 15-20 and begin interviews. On June 29 Bickert presents to the board, in closed session, names of four to six semi-finalists. The board will select two or three as finalists during July 6-9. The following week, July 12-14, finalists will be evaluated and a superintendent selected.

At least that’s the proposal.

If it doesn’t work out we’re free to extend those deadlines. Even start the search process all over again.

The board is open to some form of public participation. We may vote this evening on what that process will be.

A complication, we are told by Bickert, is that we may lose some of our best candidates if we cannot guarantee confidentiality for the semi-finalists. There are superintendents in other districts willing to move to Iowa City. But they’re reluctant to have that be known without pretty good odds they’ll make the final cut.
Obviously, such confidentiality means this community, and its mass media, will have substantially less information and opportunity for participation in the interviewing and hiring process.

New York’s Boss Tweed once said, “I don’t care who does the electing just so long as I do the nominating.”

The board majority does not want even board members to have access to Bickert’s first cut list of 15-20.

And only the board will have access to the list of semi-finalists. By the time the search process narrows the choice to one-to-three finalists community participation, though possible, will have been substantially curtailed – with the consequences of Boss Tweed’s maxim.

What to do?

At a board working session last week a number of possibilities were raised:

Finalists, less concerned about confidentiality, can and probably will be made available for meetings with representatives of stakeholder groups, such as teachers.

Meanwhile, there’s nothing to prevent everyone in the community who wants to from submitting proposed interview questions to board members. (My e-mail is; board members’ e-mail, fax, phone and addresses are available from the district office, 339-6800.)

Be creative.

Many years ago I was asked to host a television show and interview all the candidates seeking their party’s nomination for president. I quickly discovered these folks come equipped with well-rehearsed answers to most of the conventional questions they are asked day after day.

Superintendent candidates are no different.

Ask whether they “care about kids,” “think all employees should be respected,” or “believe student performance can be improved” and their answers are likely to be pretty predictable.

I considered throwing each presidential candidate a baseball, or tipping over his chair, to get an unrehearsed response. Instead, I came up with what was a new question for them. I’ve used it with candidates in Iowa living rooms during the years since.

“Assume we think you’re ‘right on the issues.’ Assume you’re elected. Why will major campaign contributors have less control over legislative and regulatory decisions with you in the White House than they do now?” Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader have been the only ones with answers. Hubert Humphrey’s usual ebullient response and request we talk about it more at least reflected an understanding of the question.

Others’ responses revealed they hadn’t a clue as to either the problem or possible solutions.

The odds of getting the best person for any job are not high. There are limits to what you can learn from resumes and interviews. Superintendents are no different.

A year from now we could find ourselves holding nostalgic “why I miss Barb Grohe” contests.

Meanwhile, this superintendent search is worth our best effort. What creative questions would you like to put on our next superintendent’s final exam? Let us hear from you.

Nicholas Johnson is a member of the Iowa City Community School Board.