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Q&A: Inside the search for the next LAUSD superintendent

Hank Gmitro is leading L.A. Unified's superintendent search.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC
Hank Gmitro, president of the firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, is leading Los Angeles Unified's superintendent search.

The man who heads the hunt for the next Los Angeles Unified superintendent says the size of the 650,000-student school district and its high-profile search are adding to the challenge of finding a new leader. 

Hank Gmitro, president of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, sat down with KPCC to talk about his search firm's quest to find qualified candidates who can manage a school district seen as among the most difficult to run in the country. 

The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and space.

Q: How many superintendent searches have you conducted and how does L.A. Unified differ from those previous searches?

A: I’ve been involved with 40 over the last six to seven years. Our company has done over a thousand over the last 20-plus years.

This is similar in terms of engagement and the activities that have been planned to other large system searches with community forums and the sessions that are scheduled. But I will share that the scale of L.A. is different than any place, just due to its sheer size.

Q: How differently are you and your colleagues approaching the LAUSD superintendent search compared to the others?

A: The difference is the scale and the public nature of it. Everyone knows that L.A. Unified is looking for a new superintendent. So…the advertisement to potential candidates isn’t really the need as in some other places when you’re trying to get the word out that the position is open.

I’ve worked on several other large system searches of a couple hundred students and we have probably at least quadrupled our effort in the amount of time that we’re devoting to leadership profiling activities here and the number of sessions being offered.

Q: What’s prepared you for this job?

A: I was a superintendent, so I know the role. I wasn’t a superintendent in a really large system, it was a smaller suburban system. But I’ve done this kind of work for the last, almost 10 years. I did a few searches when I was a superintendent locally for the firm. One of the things that we try to do when we recruit associates is to have people who understand the process and the national perspective when it’s a national search, but also understand the local dynamics and the state dynamics. We try to have people on the team who understand California, understand Los Angeles as well as a couple of people on the team who understand our national process and outreach.

At this point in time, I have probably done six or seven searches of school districts of the hundred largest school districts across the country. I feel like I have some experience in knowing what those dynamics are in large systems and how do you reach out to massive audiences.

Q: Next month, when you start making calls to potential candidates, how do you go about telling them there’s a job opening here?

A: That’s yet to be determined, because part of that is based on the criteria that the board develops. So before you get too far into the recruitment effort, you really want to know what the community is looking for and what the board is looking for.

Some of the themes I’ve heard so far, across the board from students, parents, staff members, board members is [they want] somebody who really understands the educational system, has had some experience with education or at least significant leadership roles in the delivery of public service, human services. A common comment has been [they want] someone who really puts the needs of kids first.

Q: Are you going to talk to current superintendents and former superintendents?

A: That will certainly be one pool of candidates, but I’m also waiting to hear a little bit further as to whether there are other categories of people who should be approached. Some people have suggested internal candidates. At each of our sessions, we always ask for recommendations in terms of people we should approach. Some people have made some suggestions.

Some people have said, someone who really understands the Los Angeles area, the politics of the community, understands LAUSD in terms of the history of the organization, [and knows] some of the things we have been through in this community, some of the efforts we have tried, some of the challenges we have faced. Could an internal candidate do that or somebody who’s worked in the system at some point in time and maybe moved on to another position?

Q: Doesn’t that mean that there’s a short list of the heads of the largest school districts or the top administrators within LAUSD?

A: I don’t think there’s a short list, but there’s a possible list. If you’re looking at just superintendents who have had experience of 100,000 students or more, there’s only 26 districts in this country that are that size. So are you looking for someone who is in one of those jobs, has been in one of those jobs and may be doing something else? Sometimes people look at deputies stepping into the superintendency for the first time.

There’s no list that has been developed yet, but there certainly are the potential candidates … we might reach out to. But a large piece of that is, once the board defines the characteristics that they’re looking for in terms of leadership style, educational philosophy, experiences they’ve had in terms of financial management or technology or certain kinds of areas, that may lead you in one direction versus another direction…. .

The other [thing] in terms of the short list is, some people moved just recently. So they may not be likely to make a move. A lot of the top 25 districts have hired in the last year or two or three so whether someone is willing to make a leap in that short of a tenure, I don’t know.

In the last 15 years, there have been divisions between those who support charter schools and those who support the teachers union or teacher-friendly policies. How will that play out in your search for a superintendent?

It’s going to have to be an issue that the next superintendent, and therefore the candidates who may consider the position, is ready to deal with. The thing we have heard as the most common theme from the sessions we’ve held hasn’t been so much about charter schools, but [people want] someone who is pro-public education.

Q: What does that mean?

A: One of the things I haven’t heard is a criticism of charter schools. The frustration has been: shouldn’t charter schools have to play by the same rules as everyone else? Shouldn’t they have to accept special education students that want to go to them? Shouldn’t they have to be held to the same accountability standards in terms of performance?

Q: Will you be asking candidates about charter schools, if the board gives you that direction?

A: Sure, if that’s part of the definition that they define in their profile, experience with charter schools or dealing with charter schools.

Q: Are internal politics something that you tread lightly on?

A: We try to be as knowledgeable about them as possible and raise those issues and have the board members think about those kinds of issues before they ever see candidates, to say, what is that you’re looking for in this area. The reality might be charter schools at the moment here, but five years from now there could be a whole different issue that has to be addressed in L.A. Unified.

Q: How much weight do the public comments have since, in the end, it’s up to the school board to pick the next superintendent?

A: I think they have a lot of weight. The board has been very consistent and sincere and genuine in their direction to us that they want to know what the public thinks before they define that criteria. But the reality that everyone should be aware of is that everyone has a vote to elect the school board and so they have a say in the decision about the school board through a public election. But once the school board is elected that’s the body that is vested with making the decision about who the next superintendent is.

Q: Have school boards given you lists of people they don’t want as superintendent?

A: I wouldn’t say a list. But on occasion when a name is recommended or considered, someone has said, ‘No, I don’t think that’s the right person for us,’ based on the individual’s reputation or what they know of a candidate.

Q: Has this board given that sort of direction?

A: Not at all.

Q: How do you go about approaching people for a superintendent job?

A: The job is advertised so anybody can submit an application online. The recruitment effort is what’s more than likely going to generate applications that the board is going to want to see. That effort is about picking up the phone and asking them, ‘Are you interested?’ It might be based on the name being recommended by someone. It might be one of our associates making a referral. We have 120 associates across the country and I regularly send out information — this is what the school district is looking for here’s their profile. Is there someone you would recommend that you know of who fits this profile?

Q: This is a confidential search until the appointment. What steps do you take to ensure it remains confidential?

A: The names are not released of who the board is interviewing or considering. I think it’s important for people to understand the rationale for a confidential search. The board has a desire to see the very strongest candidates. I’m from Chicago. Say I’m the superintendent of Chicago public schools and I’m thinking, ‘Well, maybe I would be interested in talking to L.A. about this particular opening.’

If I know my name is going to be held in confidence through those stages of that conversation with the board, I might be willing to take that step. If I know that my name is going to become public that I’m applying for that position and considering that position, I’m putting my current job at risk. I’ve seen people lose their jobs over applying for other jobs when their names have become public. Their board has said to them, ‘If you want to leave, maybe we don’t want you here.’

Q: Will current L.A. Unified employees be measured differently from candidates outside the school district?

A: The board said, ‘We’d like to consider internal and external candidates against the same criteria.’ Once we develop that criteria, that’s what we’ll use to asses their match for what we need to move forward. At this point in time, it’s open to everyone.

Q: What’s next in the L.A. Unified superintendent search?

A: Through the end of October, through the 28th, 29th the survey is up and running. We encourage everyone to take the survey. The meetings will be occurring through the 29th. October is really focused on the community portion of the search.

All that information will be compiled into a written report that will be presented at a public board meeting on November 10th and the board will use that information to discuss the criteria they want to establish. And that’ll have to move fairly rapidly during the beginning part of November because November is really the time that we’re going to be recruiting and vetting candidates against that criteria. And then the board will start interviewing candidates through a two-stage process starting in December.

The first round of interviews will be scripted interviews that they ask the candidates the same questions so that they’re assessing all the candidates equally.

Q: Are you in those meetings?

A: Sometimes we are, sometimes we aren’t. That’s up to the discretion of the board. We’re there to help facilitate the debriefing of the candidates after they do the interview. Sometimes boards like us to sit in on the interviews, sometimes not.

Once they interview the first round of candidates they will determine who they would like to bring back for second interviews which are much more conversational, interactive type of interview where it could be a two, three, four-hour dialogue back and forth between the candidate and the board assessing their match.

One thing that’s important for everybody to remember is that candidates are interviewing boards and the job as much as the board and the district is interviewing the candidate. They’re trying to determine, “Is this a place I feel like I’m a good match for, and can I do good work here, and meet the needs and expectations they’re looking for?”

Q: During November, how many phone calls will you make, how many names will come to you?

Probably hundreds of phone calls because, in addition to calling candidates, we’re also calling references and following up and vetting candidates whether they should move forward.

In a typical superintendent search, a pool of 30 to 40 qualified candidates is a pretty strong showing.

People often think there’s hundreds of people who want these jobs or are willing to make moves. That’s not always the case. Credentials and qualifications are often a driving factor. Experience is a driving factor. And for some place as large as L.A., that pool may be smaller in terms of people who ultimately commit.