The Duluth School Board heard presentations Thursday from two firms being considered to conduct the search for a new superintendent.

The board heard presentations from the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA) and BWP & Associates out of Illinois. Both firms were given 45 minutes, and at the end of each presentation, board members were able to ask questions. Board members Nora Sandstad and Alanna Oswald were absent from the meeting.

The board is expected to vote on which firm to hire during its meeting Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.

BWP & Associates tout equity

Kathleen Williams and Nicholas Wahl presented on behalf of BWP & Associates. Williams has 18 years of experience as a superintendent of schools in Kansas, Illinois and Wisconsin. Before working with BWP she was the superintendent in Wausau, Wis.

Wahl has 16 years as a superintendent of schools in Illinois and Indiana. Wahl said he left his superintendent job in 2016 to work in the world of equity. He serves as the regional director of strategic initiatives for Equal Opportunity Schools, whose mission is to “ensure that students of color and low-income students have equitable access to America’s most academically intense high school programs and succeed at the highest levels.”

When asked by the board why Williams and Wahl wanted to work with the Duluth school district, Wahl said the district’s mission statement really spoke to him. The mission statement says: “Duluth Public Schools are working to inspire every student to achieve their potential and preparing students to lead productive, fulfilling lives as citizens of Duluth and the wider world.”

“I have a passion for working with districts that want to make a difference for all kids. I sense that you do,” Wahl said. “I'm at the point where I can pick and choose who I work with because I want to spend time with those organizations that really want to help kids”

BWP has conducted over 800 successful executive searches nationwide, though Williams and Wahl said they have not personally conducted searches in Minnesota. BWP currently has 10 current searches in progress, mostly in Illinois, but also DeKalb County School District in Georgia with an enrollment of about 100,000 and Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin with an enrollment of 27,000.

If hired BWP would put out an initial posting of the opening in Duluth, which would have a short description about the city of Duluth and the district. After meeting with the board for a planning session, the posting would be updated with initial position prerequisites and a web-based application system would be opened.

From there, BWP proposed conducting individual board member interviews and interviews with stakeholder focus groups to identify needs to help develop a leadership profile for the position. BWP would also open up an online survey for community members.

Wahl said they would hope to close the survey in early January and then meet with the board in mid-January to share and approve a leadership profile that would then be used to update the posting once more with the thought the search would close at the end of February.

BWP offered a draft timeline, but emphasized the board would have the final say. Under BWP’s draft timeline, they expect the board to possibly hire someone before spring break.

Wahl said in addition to advertising, BWP would use its vast network to target recruits.

“I'm a big fan of targeting searches. I think that's how we should do searches,” Wahl said. “I'm very intentional about targeting and finding the best. I have a list of current superintendents who are looking for a district that is larger and has an opportunity as a leader.”

Williams said the firm will also ask the community if there is someone they would like to nominate for the position, whether in the district or outside the district but in the area.

BWP does not allow school board members to view every application to protect applicants' privacy and because they expect a large number of applicants, Wahl said. He said they would typically recommend six candidates to be interviewed — the board would see those applications — but if the board isn’t thrilled with those candidates or would like to see different candidates, BWP would come back with more recommendations.

“Do not settle,” Williams said. “If there isn’t somebody that is not blowing your socks off. Do not settle.”

BWP's consulting fee is $20,000 plus expenses. The $20,000 does not include the cost to advertise on certain websites or travel — travel costs for the consultants are estimated to cost $6,000. Williams did say that if the board has a specific budget, it should be relayed to BWP and they will stick to it.

BWP does offer a guarantee to be on call throughout the search process and the year following the selection of the permanent superintendent. BWP will also offer mentoring help for the new superintendent and School Board for the first year. BWP also guarantees that if the selected candidate does not complete two years in the position, BWP will repeat the search for expenses only.

MSBA ‘knows the district’

The Minnesota School Boards Association and has served school boards across the state for 100 years. It started offering executive search services in 2010 and has conducted 59 superintendent searches, with 21 being conducted in 2018-2019.

Sandy Gundlach, who would be one of the consultants to work on the Duluth search if MSBA is hired, said MSBA not only has a network covering all of Minnesota but is part of the National School Boards Association, giving them a national reach.

MSBA did not offer up a draft timeline but said the first step would to sit down with the board for a planning session.

MSBA would post the vacancy on its website, the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, and St. Cloud University’s EdPost service. It offered optional advertising options to national sites that would be an additional cost to the district above and beyond the professional search fee.

MSBA would also send the announcement to Minnesota school districts, interested persons and the National Affiliation of Superintendent Searchers.

Gundlach said MSBA would allow the board members to see all of the applications, without names. She said the applications would be shared with a point person within the district who would then print off the applications and put them in a folder. Board members would have to come in and individually to look at the applications. Though, Gundlach said MSBA would give the board six recommendations they feel would best fit the district. Gundlach said the board could probably expect around 18-20 completed applications at most.

When asked why MSBA is interested in helping Duluth in this search, Gundlach said it’s part of the organization's mission to support, promote and strengthen the work of public school boards.

“We know you, your district and the state of Minnesota,” Gundlach said. “We’ve also been with you and your district through the highs and lows of board leadership. You can count on us. We are here and we are not going anywhere.”

MSBA is currently under contract with St. Clair, Detroit Lakes and Hermantown. Gundlach also disclosed to the board that she has grandchildren in the Duluth school district and her daughter works for the district.

The search service fee for MSBA is estimated at $18,925 plus travel and expenses. MSBA did not offer an estimated cost for travel.