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East Baton Rouge Schools Superintendent Warren Drake speaks about the Capital Area Promise initiative, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019 at the Main Library at Goodwood, where area education leaders are gathered to update the community on the program, a joint initiative launched last year to create more college and career pathways for students in Greater Baton Rouge area.

Two firms, one from Baton Rouge and the other from Texas, are seeking to help the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board find someone to replace Superintendent Warren Drake, who is retiring June 30.

SSA Consultants is a Baton Rouge firm that has worked with the school system through the years. During its 49 years in operation, SSA has provided executive search services for many local organizations, including governments; however, it lists no K-12 education searches in its proposal.

Austin, Texas-based JG Consultants, by contrast, specializes in search for superintendents and top school executives. Two of the three people who would lead a search for East Baton Rouge are former superintendents.

JG’s proposed fee of $25,000 is roughly half of the $49,500 SSA is proposing. Also, SSA’s fee does not cover travel expenses for bringing in candidates or for placing job ads.

The School Board plans to bring in both firms to make presentations on Oct. 17 and select one that night.

Board President Mike Gaudet in May established a “working group” of two board members, Connie Bernard and Dadrius Lanus, to guide the superintendent search. The group met twice over the summer to help develop the request for proposals for a search firm and then a third time on Tuesday to review the two applicants.

The recent practice of forming working groups of two or three board members — short of the five members that would constitute a quorum of the board — sparked criticism at the board’s Sept. 19 meeting from Bernard and fellow board member David Tatman.

Bernard and Tatman questioned whether the groups, which meet privately without publishing agendas or recording the proceedings, might violate Louisiana Open Meetings Law; they suggested the board instead adopt a traditional committee structure. Tatman, who was not present at Thursday’s meeting, was originally supposed to serve on the superintendent search working group, but bowed out before its first meeting.

Lanus defended the process.

“What I can tell you this was done this correct way, from the day (the request for proposals) was first written out to today,” Lanus said Thursday.

Between 2011 to 2013, SSA Consultants helped the School Board develop a strategic plan. In January, Chief Executive Officer Christel Slaughter and Partner Rudy Gomez facilitated a School Board retreat and helped the board develop a one-page set of principles.

In the early 2000s, Slaughter helped lead a Citizen’s Task Force that intervened in the late stages of the long-running school desegregation case. For several years, she was the chairman of Advance Baton Rouge, a nonprofit which ran four charter schools in Baton Rouge and one in Morganza from 2008 to 2012.

Board watcher James Finney objected to SSA as too close to business leaders and school choice advocates.

“I don’t think that organization is the sort of organization that has any business leading a search, particularly since they are tied to certain influential community members who are clearly interested in having more than their share of influence in who the next superintendent might be,” Finney said.

SSS Consultants said it will have two other organizations on its search team: Franklin Associates and Bayard Management Group.

Franklin’s president is Perry Franklin, former head of the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance in Baton Rouge. Franklin was employed in 2017 and 2018 to help with the development of a new “Tax Plan,” a decade's worth of school construction projects, approved by voters in April 2018 when they voted to renew a 1-cent sales tax.

Bayard president James Gilmore’s resume includes work in health care, finance, community planning, workforce development and disaster recovery. Gilmore is best known for a short stint in 2017 as assistant administrative officer under Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.

In 2017 the School Board rejected an application Gilmore led to open a charter school in Baton Rouge called Boys Prep, which was to focus on improving education for young black males.

A year ago, Gilmore formed the Institute for Human Development & Excellence, a nonprofit focused on job training and helping with the formation of small businesses. Lanus joined the new initiative and is listed as the organization’s president.

That could pose a conflict of interest for Lanus.

Lanus told The Advocate on Thursday that he briefly served as chairman of the board for that organization, but quit that role several months ago because he was too busy. He said his connection to Gilmore doesn’t prejudice his judgment.

“That in no way gives them any leg up in the process,” he said.

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.