OTTUMWA — The open superintendent position was already garnering a lot of interest from applicants even before the school board finalized the top qualifications to be listed in the job description.
“As of one hour ago, you have 21 applications that are completed from all over the country,” said Dale Monroe of Ray & Associates, the firm hired to helm the superintendent search, during an update to the school board Tuesday night. He said an additional 12 had started the application process but hadn’t completed it and another two that had expressed interest but hadn’t begun the application.
“We’re looking at about 33 if all of them are completed,” Monroe said. He said applicants’ current positions range from principals to associate superintendents in large districts to practicing superintendents.
“I think that’s a great number of applicants,” said David Weilbrenner, board president.
“I’m quite please with it, to be honest,” Monroe said, adding that the firm had to scramble to come up with 40 applicants for a recent search over about eight weeks. “You guys are attractive. There are people willing to apply, so I’m going to encourage you to move forward with that.”
The timeline of the process, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, are complications for the search. Monroe expressed concerns that the board’s selection might not be able to meet the July 1 start date, especially with the finalist interviews scheduled for June 25.
“People that are applying are aware that they’ll wind up having to get out of their contract when they come here,” he said. That’s not a problem in and of itself — otherwise they wouldn’t have applied, he added — but providing sufficient notice to their current employer could complicate the July 1 target.
COVID-19 adds wrinkles to that as well. Some of the applicants are in other states that are moving forward from the pandemic at different paces. Travel bans could be in place for some of the candidates as well.
Monroe suggested the board hire their preferred candidate and get them to come as soon as they can, but they might need a month or six weeks to get here.
He suggested a few ideas to help bridge that gap. One option was to hire somebody to sit in as a short-term superintendent to fill the chair “to finish the work Nicole has started with the state in getting school up and running,” Monroe said, referencing current Superintendent Nicole Kooiker, who is resigning to take a position in Cedar Rapids. Another option was to appoint one or two people internally to handle those operations with the third option being to have the new superintendent show up “and limp through the six weeks. I don’t advocate that,” he said.
During the meeting, the board, with guidance from Monroe, finalized the brochure to be used in advertising the position. Parts that needed finalized were the qualifications listing from the community survey and salary.
“You had 557 of your community members, teachers, staff and kids respond to this 33-characteristic survey,” Monroe said. The top-10 responses from the community largely matched the qualifications board members had selected for their top 10.
“Nine of the 10 characteristics that we listed in the brochure that you helped me put in there as tentative were all there in their top 10, too,” he told the board. “I applaud you. You know your community very well. They picked the same nine you did.”
The qualification the community picked that the board did, and also isn’t listed on the brochure, is classroom experience.
“My recommendation going forward for you is that the 10 that you have in your brochure is the ones that you would leave, and then we’ll have each of the candidates tell you about their experience in the classroom so you know who you’re getting,” Monroe said.
Their education experience, including where and what they taught and previous administrative positions, will be available on the applications. “I’m not so worried about having educational experience in the top 10. I think the other 10 that you have would do a very, very good job.”
The salary range was also pending board approval. He said the listing “in the range of $210,000” plus benefits package came from comparing five districts below and above Ottumwa as well as figuring in the current superintendent salary. Monroe said the low was $195,000 with a high of $225,000. The phrasing, he said, allows for flexibility based on experience, qualifications and meeting board criteria.
“If you get somebody who doesn’t have the experiences you want, you could go lower. If you have somebody with more experience and want to go higher, you can, but that’s a board decision,” Monroe said.
The board voted unanimously to approve the brochure.
Monroe said the firm will now move forward with collecting more applications and whittling down candidates based on reviewing letters of reference and researching work history. A group of eight to 10 candidates will be presented to board June 15 with finalist interviews of about four or five candidates June 25.
The board expressed a strong preference for conducting those final interviews in a face-to-face setting.
“I always prefer face to face, but I also understand we have to be realistic now, too,” said board member Morgan Brown.
Monroe said a recent interview was done in an auditorium with people seated with social distancing in mind with the candidates set up on the stage. He said that worked well to provide the face-to-face interaction “without all the handshaking and hugging that sometimes comes along with this process.”
He said he will plan on setting up face-to-face interviews with candidates unable to make it attending by Zoom.