A Duluth School Board committee meeting Tuesday got heated after members questioned the transparency of finding a consultant to handle the search for a new superintendent.
Board member Nora Sandstad said at the human resource committee meeting Tuesday night that on Thursday, she had asked to see the request for proposal (RFP) that was sent out to consulting firms that could possibly be hired to handle the search. As of the end of the committee meeting Tuesday, board members had not seen the RFP that was sent to seven consulting firms around the region.
“I know I want to see the RFP and I'm betting I'm not the only one on this board who wants to see this depth of information because there is a lack of trust here and you can understand why,” Sandstad said.
Sandstad was referencing the 2018 hiring of assistant superintendent Jeff Horton. In that case, some board said they were not informed about what came back on his background check.
"This process is setting up to be one that is done behind the scenes with little bits of information summarized for the School Board," Sandstad said. "That's not how it's going to be."
Sandstad said her email Thursday night was sent to human resource director Tim Sworsky, board chair Rosie Loeffler-Kemp and superintendent Bill Gronseth.
Loeffler-Kemp said she replied to Sandstad Friday morning, saying the superintendent search update was on the human resources committee agenda and that the board would have a chance to review the responses to the RFP when they came back.
Sandstad said she then replied shortly to thank Loeffler-Kemp and ask Sworsky for the RFP to be sent to her. Loeffler-Kemp said she did not respond further because she was getting ready to head out of town for the weekend and believed it would be handled by others.
Sworsky said he was following standard practice when handling RFPs as well as what the district had done in past superintendent searches, which is why it wasn’t sent out to board members before being sent to possible consultants. He suggested Sandstad take her request up with the board chair.
Sandstad said the superintendent search is not a standard process and shouldn’t be treated as such.
“(The RFP) is something that goes into some detail about what we're looking for and what we are looking for should be determined by the board,” Sandstad said. “It shouldn't be determined by the chair and the HR director.”
Board member Alanna Oswald said she was also under the impression the RFP would be sent to the entire School Board to be reviewed before it was sent to possible consultants.
“Following the processes before have gotten us some pretty controversial past superintendents that our community has very recent memories of and I want to avoid any perception of digging in those same pools,” she said. “I would really like to recruit to our fullest abilities in places we may not have looked before because we need a special person to bring us back together.”
Board member Sally Trnka also asked to see the RFP and asked Sworsky to over-communicate in the future about the superintendent search process so it would be more transparent. Sandstad asked that Loeffler-Kemp waive her authority to determine whether information is shared with the entire board, especially related to the superintendent search, so there would be a free flow of information that is public anyway.
“The difficulty on this end is that I can’t be responding to seven different people with seven different requests,” Sworsky said. “It has to get funneled through some aspect.”
Sandstad said she understands the request and finds it reasonable but had some concerns about those requests going through Loeffler-Kemp.
“My concern is that flow is not going to happen, which is why I indicated my preference that we have a different chair on the board,” Sandstad said.
Sandstad had asked Sworsky at the beginning of the conversation if he had been directed not to give her the RFP. Sworsky did not answer the question but Loeffler-Kemp did by saying “no one gave Tim any direction on responding or not responding to this request.”
Sworsky said he would share the RFP with the entire board for them to examine. The deadline for firms to respond to the RFP is Sept. 24. The board is expected to be able to review each RFP in its entirety after the deadline and to discuss the RFPs at the Oct. 8 human resource committee meeting.
At that meeting, the board is expected to narrow the number of consultants and have the finalists come to Duluth to make a presentation to the board. A consultant is expected to be approved by the board for hire thereafter.