Initially skeptical, a majority of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday selected an Illinois-based national search firm to help it choose its next superintendent

The vote was 9-2 to hire PROACT, of Wilmette, Ill., capping its fee at $30,000. Board member Craig Freeman voted no, and board member Kenyetta Nelson-Smith abstained.

PROACT’s proposals beat out similar ones offered by two other search firms, McPherson & Jacobson, and Ray & Associates.

PROACT had proposed a flat fee of $32,500, but at an Aug. 10 meeting, firm representatives said they would be willing to lower its fee. The reason is the School Board, in the same motion Thursday, agreed to accept 16 different characteristics of what it wants in its next superintendent.

The characteristics were mostly developed as part of the 2009 search that led to the hiring of Superintendent John Dilworth. In May, Dilworth announced he won’t stay beyond his three-year contract, which expires in June.

Board member Jerry Arbour said he decided to make that fee reduction offer part of his proposal.

“I thought I could take $2,500 out of their hide and maybe the board president and the superintendent could take out a little more,” Arbour said.

Freeman, however, didn’t feel it went far enough. He urged the board to cap PROACT’s fee at just $10,000, with outside groups able to put up money to cover the difference if PROACT ended up costing a bit more.

“This is our job. I suggest that we not give this job to other people, and not at this price,” Freeman said. “We can’t spend system dollars on consultant magic.”

The board voted 7-2 against Freeman’s motion, with only Freeman and board Vice President Tarvald Smith voting in support of the $10,000 cap.

The board also had the option of not hiring a search firm at all, but several board members came away impressed by PROACT’s Aug. 10 presentation.

Board President Barbara Freiberg has said she still wants community leaders to have an active role in the search.

Here are the other two firms and their suggested fees:

• McPherson & Jacobson, of Omaha, Neb.: $33,500, plus up to $14,420 in expenses.

• Ray & Associates of Cedar Rapids, Iowa: an estimated fee of $36,800. The firm also charges an hourly rate of $100 for one of their consultants and $25 for an administrative assistant, plus expenses.

PROACT handled the 2005 search that led to the hiring of Chief Academic Officer Bob Stockwell. It also handled the 2010 search that ended with the rehiring of current Chief Academic Officer Herman Brister Sr.

Gary Solomon, chief executive officer of PROACT, worked with the school system in 2008 and 2009 under a school improvement contract as part of the company Synesi & Associates, which Solomon currently serves as president.

PROACT also has hired Jim Huge, a former superintendent and veteran search consultant. Both Solomon and Huge handled Thursday’s presentation.

The firm said it focuses on large urban school districts, though it handled a recent search for the local charter school group Advance Baton Rouge, which operates five schools in the greater Baton Rouge area.

PROACT, under different management, unsuccessfully sought to lead the search that led to the hiring of Dilworth.

Arbour said PROACT improved a lot over three years ago.

“There was one (presentation) in my opinion that was head and shoulders above the other two,” Arbour said.

Arbour said the choice of a search firm is important because selecting a good superintendent is so important.

“It’s the most important thing we do as a school board,” he said.

COMBATTING TRUANCY: In other action, the board voted unanimously to enter into an agreement with the state to use the vacant School for the Visually Impaired to serve as a one-stop center to combat truancy.

The agreement, two years in the making, allows the system to use the 9-acre facility on Government Street rent-free as long as costs for utilities, maintenance and liability are paid.

The board also approved an agreement between the board and the offices of Mayor-President Kip Holden, District Attorney Hillar Moore and Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, all three of whom spoke at Thursday’s meeting.

The agreement among the four government agencies locks in initial funds for the facility — each agency has committed $100,000 a year for the next three years.