A debate is brewing over how competitive and how public the search to replace outgoing East Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent John Dilworth should be.

At one end of the spectrum is Baton Rouge Area Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Adam Knapp.

Knapp suggests just one candidate’s name should be made public, a lone finalist whom the board can accept or reject.

He said he wants a “recruitment” as opposed to a “search” process.

“You may not get the absolute best of the candidates if you require them to go through a beauty contest against other candidates,” Knapp said.

At the other end of the spectrum is School Board Vice President Tarvald Smith.

Smith has pressed for a much more open process in which interested candidates complete public applications that the board will review and use to narrow to a slate of finalists, perhaps five or more.

“I would like to keep the public informed of every step,” Smith said.

When asked whether top candidates will participate in a fully open search, Smith, however, acknowledged that some top candidates may shy away from too public a search.

“It’s a Catch 22,” he said. “I’m torn on that.”

Similarly torn is School Board member Craig Freeman, who took office in January.

“As a media law professor I think everything should be transparent, but people I trust tell me they would not put their name in the hat for top government jobs unless they were near the top,” Freeman said.

The 2009 search

The current debate is heavily influenced by people’s view about the quality of previous superintendent searches, especially the 2009 search that led to the hiring of Dilworth. Dilworth on May 20 announced he will leave in June 2012 once his three-year contract expires.

In 2009, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, or BRAC, and affiliated businesses did their own recruitment for the superintendent job. In February 2009, the business lobbying group privately submitted 12 names for the search firm handling that search, Hazard, Young & Attea, or HYA, of Rosemont, Ill., to review

Knapp said the most sought-after people approached at the time were reluctant to consider applying unless they were the only finalists.

“They are not going to submit if they don’t have the sense that they are going to be the top pick,” he said.

School Board President Barbara Freiberg, who also took office in January, said she has some concerns about having only one finalist, but plans to meet soon with Knapp. She said she likes having multiple candidates take part in public interviews for the job.

Freiberg also said she is reluctant to have every name released publicly, instead wanting to limit public disclosure to just the finalists.

“This is a process where we want to be transparent, but we don’t want our transparency to hinder our ability to attract good candidates,” she said.

HYA handled both the 2009 search and a 2004 superintendent search that ended with the hiring of Charlotte Placide.

During those searches, some candidates submitted applications that the search firm released publicly to The Advocate as they came in, in response to public records requests. HYA, however, also recruited other candidates privately, most of whom never formally applied. In both 2004 and 2009, the three finalists in each search were the last to formally apply for the jobs.

It’s not clear whether the School Board will once again employ a search firm.

No search firms yet

A request for proposals was issued on June 23, but no search firms had applied as of Monday and the deadline to apply is July 25, said board attorney Domoine Rutledge.

Rutledge said the request for proposal, or RFP, has been published three times in The Advocate, but the school system has shied away from publishing it in trade journals because of the expense.

“We may just make some cold calls to search firms that are in the business to make them aware of the existence of the (RFP),” he said.

The School Board won’t decide on whether to hire a search firm until at least its Aug. 4 meeting, Freiberg said.

Several board members say they may well decide to hire no one.

“I think the board could be its own search firm,” said Smith.

Instead, Smith has proposed having board members review applications, using local leaders, especially university presidents, as a resource to help recruit potential applicants.

Freeman likes having community leaders involved, saying he’s looking for a community-led search process along the lines of the recent search that led to the hiring of Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White.

“These are our problems and I would like our people to solve our problems,” said Freeman.

Echoing some other board members, Freeman also expressed skepticism about whether a search firm is worth the expense.

In past searches, BRAC has come out in favor of hiring a national search firm, but this time is open to alternatives.

Knapp said he feels that in 2009 HYA “basically ignored” many of the potential candidates BRAC submitted for review.

At the time, HYA representative Marvin Edwards said two of the 12 chamber-submitted names ended as finalists and had long been under consideration, but Edwards would not identify them. Edwards also said some of the people on the list, when contacted by HYA, wondered how they got on the list to begin with.

Knapp said an alternative to hiring a search firm might be for community leaders to lead a recruitment drive, perhaps hiring a consultant rather than a firm to do the recruitment.

Freiberg has similar sentiments.

“I’d really like to sit down and figure out how we can be as innovative as possible,” she said.

On July 21, the board plans to consider what the ideal characteristics of its next superintendent should be.

In 2009, this was a lengthy process that featured hundreds of community surveys and several public meetings, information that HYA narrowed down to a handful of characteristics.

Jerry Arbour, who was board president at the time, suggests simply adopting those characteristics as is or slightly changing them.

“We would save just about three months on the process,” he said.

Freiberg agreed, but said she may seek to rewrite one of the characteristics, which calls for a candidate with a proven track of success, so that it is not interpreted to eliminate candidates who are not veteran educators.