Search for school superintendent: Committee cites struggle of distrust, miscommunication

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 16, 2001

[01/16/01] Nearly a year into the hunt for a new superintendent of schools, search committee members told school trustees again Monday night the process is being hampered by distrust and miscommunication.

Committee chairman Grey Ferris said if the trustees plan to hire interim superintendent Donald Oakes permanently, they need to make that decision now.

“The worst thing in the world would be for the process to continue when you’ve already made up your mind,” Ferris told trustees at a working session.

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Ferris, a former state senator, was chairman of the group of elected trustees who administered the Vicksburg Warren School District when it was founded in 1987. He led the search that located the district’s first superintendent, Ed Gilley, and, although retired from public roles, was asked to participate in a new search that began a year ago.

Oakes, a veteran of decades in local public schools, has mentioned a desire to serve in his position for one more year, Ferris said, so trustees need to “look at the long-term impact of your decision and make it.”

John Carlisle, District 4 school trustee, said Oakes had not told the board he wants to continue as interim superintendent. Oakes took office in February and is to serve until the end of this school year.

Oakes said this morning he “probably will apply” for the superintendent’s job, but has said a lot will depend on the search criteria. One superintendent, Gilley, had a doctorate. The two others, Charles Craft and Robert Pickett, who retired a year ago, did not, and Oakes does not.

“It’s been my understanding that if I choose to apply, then I can,” Oakes said this morning. “But nobody has promised me anything.”

Ferris also said committee members are concerned the search process has not been an open one. If the board truly is seeking new leadership, he and the search committee “really need to get hustling,” he said.

Board President Zelmarine Murphy said she has made efforts to recruit applicants for the position and feels the search has been an open process.

District 1 Trustee Chad Barrett said he wants the freedom to choose the “best person for the job. I don’t want someone tying my hands right now,” he said.

Search committee member Ronnie Heath told the board there has been a “lack of communication” between the board and the committee and that the committee’s duties have not been clearly defined.

“There needs to be clear delegation,” he said. “Opening the lines of communication will help.”

Barrett agreed. “The first thing we have to deal with is the distrust,” he said.

The search committee exists under a Strategic Plan adopted for the district that calls for such community participation with the school trustees, elected from county supervisor districts.

The Strategic Plan, developed by a Core Planning Team and adopted by the Board of Trustees in 1997, has specific steps for the search for new personnel. Following it, the Core Planning Team submitted nominations for the search committee a year ago, but the school board did not act on them. After the team challenged that delay, a new search committee was selected in April. Each trustee selected two members from his or her district, the Core Planning Team selected two, and the principals picked one representative.

The process since has included hiring consultants and developing a brochure to help entice potential candidates.

Murphy has said the names of all superintendent applicants will be kept confidential until five finalists are chosen. A timeline set up by the committee indicated the finalists would be named next month. Ferris said this morning that though the schedule is tentative, the board should have a final decision by the end of April.

After search committee members aired their feelings Monday night, District 5 Trustee Kay Aasand suggested a community meeting in which individuals would be allowed to express opinions. The meeting was tentatively scheduled for Jan. 29.

Also, Ferris and the other search committee members developed a resource list of parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders to be given to potential candidates so candidates could investigate the district. The search committee agreed to meet again next week to decide which direction to take in the search.

“It’s time for us to go ahead and take some initiative,” Heath said.