School Superintendent Searches Always Seem to Ask the Wrong Questions

This column was written on November 8, 2019.

Liberals are always getting “triggered” by being exposed to things they don’t agree with. This makes them have pouty faces and insist that whatever it is they dislike is stopped immediately. That’s how I feel about school superintendent searches.

It’s always the same.

The current superintendent gets a better gig, retires, or is run off for some kind of malfeasance. Whatever the case, the school board then makes big deal out of how to find a replacement.

They always start by hiring a “search firm” that costs thousands of taxpayer dollars. “Search firm” is a triggering term for me. It makes me see visions of dollar bills with wings on them, flying off into the sunset.

School districts have plenty of highly paid employees that could type up a want ad and place it in all the trade journals. But they never do that; they always hire an expensive search firm.

Once that’s done, the applications start flooding in from school superintendents that are looking to move up and make more money.   One of them will get hired, and the district that he/she worked for will then hire a search firm.

Once the search firm is in place, it sends someone to the town to do research out among the people. By “the people,” they should be talking about taxpayers chosen at random, but typically the School Board will decide who participates. Usually, the Board will choose people from city or country government, a few wealthy elites, and people with a background in education. That way, “the people” will almost always come up with the exact criteria that the School Board wanted in the first place.

School photo by Lynn Woolley for WBDaily

What do “the people” want?

In my area, they always come up with the exact same criteria – search after search. Here are some examples taken from an actual survey that was conducted behind closed doors:

  • Experience with multiple high schools
  • Understanding of growing districts
  • Balanced professional and personal life
  • Someone that isn’t looking to move up soon (good luck with that)
  • A doctorate degree
  • Someone who pursues professional growth
  • A leader that will coordinate with other entities
  • A good listener
  • Someone that can build on current success
  • A team player
  • Someone approachable and visible in the community
  • Someone that is committed

Uh, excuse me, but every one of those things is a cliché.

Well, except maybe for the doctorate degree, but we all know that those degrees come from exceedingly left-wing institutions. That means your doctorate degree superintendent is going to be a bona fide member of the educational establishment. Which is precisely what the School Board is likely to be searching for. With help from the search firm, of course. I just got triggered again; you’ll have to excuse me.

What questions does the search firm ask?

It’s pretty much the same, no matter the city and no matter which firm. All boilerplate stuff like:

  • Why [fill in name of the ISD]?
  • What are this district’s challenges?
  • What professional qualities should the new superintendent have?
  • What personal attributes should that person have?

I’m not making this up. No one could make up stuff like this. Keep in mind, these are actual questions asked of a handpicked group of “the people” about what the new superintendent should bring to the table. This is where you get the “team player” and “good listener” points as listed above. Sometimes, it’s about diversity. Diversity is big these days – especially in academic circles.

Note that these questions have nothing to do with schools, education, students, taxpayer money – zip, zero, nada. Let’s say I was running a search for the next CEO of I might ask:

  • Why Amazon?
  • What are this company’s challenges?
  • What professional qualities should the new CEO have?
  • What personal attributes should that person have?

In this case, I would say maybe, um, this new CEO should know something about on-line sales. I might want to find a person that could “think outside the box.”

I am here to tell you that school districts may call themselves “independent” but they do not want a leader that thinks outside the box. They want someone trapped inside the education establishment box.

They want someone with a winning smile and total commitment to the latest education fads. The search firm is there to make sure that’s what they get.

What are the “right” questions to ask an applicant for school superintendent?

I have no idea.

All I can tell you is that I would work long and hard to find someone outside the education establishment that has a successful track record in business. The last thing I would want is a left-wing progressive in the mold of Elizabeth Warren who would teach our children the wonders of socialism and government-run healthcare. I’m OK with a master’s degree – but I would discourage those with doctorates not to apply because their minds are too cluttered with academic nonsense.

Put me alone in a room with each applicant, and here is what I’d ask.

Let’s start with some questions about what schools should teach. Sure, reading, writing, and arithmetic are always good – and computer science in the times in which we live. But I’ve often wondered if we shouldn’t put more emphasis on these subjects:

  • American exceptionalism
  • Western civilization
  • The United States Constitution
  • Civics (both national and state)
  • Character building
  • Personal finance and other life lessons

Yes, I know some of this is taught in some places.   I’d ask the applicants if they believe we should teach these things more and make them required courses as taught by professors that love our country.

Then, just to see what kind of people applied for the job, I’d ask these questions.   There’s not really a right or wrong answer, but you’d certainly get a sense of the person.

  • Do you consider the United States to be an English speaking country?
  • Who were the villains at the Battle of the Alamo?
  • Do you prefer phonics or the whole language approach to comprehension?
  • How many genders are there?
  • Which bathroom should a biological male student use? A biological female?
  • Should school districts use taxpayer money to lobby for higher school taxes?
  • Do you believe “rolling polling” is an appropriate way to conduct school elections?
  • Should existing debt be retired before new bond issues are called?
  • Should public schools educate the children of illegal aliens in their own language?
  • What, in your view, is an illegal alien?
  • What is your concept of outcome-based education?
  • Did “English immersion” work when it was tried in California?
  • Should public schools teach sex education, and if so at what grade level?
  • Should first-graders read “Heather has Two Mommies?”
  • Would you approve of a “drag queen story hour” in our schools?
  • What does the term “school choice” mean to you?
  • Do you believe that our system of higher education is politically diverse?
  • In such classes as government and history, should professors be neutral?
  • When bond issues are called, should taxpayers vote based on the face value of the bonds, or the entire amount with interest?
  • Do you prefer Fox News or CNN? Why?
  • What is your opinion of the A-B-C-D-F method of rating schools?

Maybe these aren’t the right questions at all.

But they would give taxpayers the measure of the men and women who apply. They would certainly provide more information to the School Board than the inane and useless clichés about “experience with growing districts” and other such claptrap.

But that’s not the point, is it? The taxpayers are mostly left out of these decisions. The School Board decides and will usually choose someone with the official seal of approval of the despicable Texas Association of School Boards, and this person will receive a large base salary, perks out the wazoo, and a golden parachute retirement plan.

The person hired will be a “lone candidate” so that the taxpayers will never know who actually applied. That way, school superintendents can pursue the never-ending goal of better jobs and bigger salaries and their own school boards are none the wiser – nor do they care. The education establishment always protects its own.

The search firm – I’m being triggered again – will walk away with thousands of taxpayer dollars for doing essentially nothing, and the cycle continues. It will continue until the people demand change or until the public schools collapse – whichever comes first.

Lynn Woolley is a Texas-based author, broadcaster, and songwriter.

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