The Duluth School Board decided Tuesday night to hire BWP & Associates to conduct the district’s search for a new superintendent.

The board voted 5-1 to engage Illinois-based BWP & Associates, considered a national search firm. Board member David Kirby had the lone no vote and board chair Rosie Loeffler-Kemp stated she was voting yes to the motion but with hesitation. After the vote, the board, in an unprecedented move, then voted unanimously to support BWP in the search process. Board member Sally Trnka was absent.

Current superintendent Bill Gronseth's contract with the school district ends in June 2020. He announced his resignation earlier this year.

Before the vote, there was a robust discussion by the board on why they were leaning more toward one firm than the other. Board members Alanna Oswald, Nora Sandstad and Kelly Durick Eder said they were in favor of hiring BWP over the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA).

Sandstad and Oswald were not able to attend last week's firm presentations in person but watched presentations online. Sandstad said she was leaning toward BWP because it has more experience with districts the size of Duluth.

“It’s not so much the numbers, but the spotlight, pressure and community interest in our process,” Sandstad said. “I think that is a favorable element for BWP and their experience.”

During the public comment period at the meeting Tuesday night, many community members spoke up in support of hiring BWP. Oswald said community interest in hiring BWP is why she was leaning toward the firm.

Community member Audrey Devine-Eller said what stuck out about BWP’s presentation the most was that they talked about the student and read the district’s mission statement.

“(BWP) has experience with equity issues and as a professional search firm they know how to run a professional unbiased search,” Devine-Eller said. “MSBA’s main pitch was, ‘We know you,’ and frankly the state of Minnesota isn’t doing so hot on equity.”

Oswald said she also took notice that BWP talked about the students and the district’s mission statement.

“They researched us and came prepared,” Oswald said. “I have to believe that they know what they are doing and will bring us candidates who think outside the box and from outside our region.”

Durick Eder, who recently served on the search committee to find a new president at the College of St. Scholastica, said she also was impressed by how much research BWP had done on the district and Duluth.

“We are not a utopia and we have issues of equity and inclusion,” Durick Eder said. “We need a firm that comes here thinking about equity and inclusion and I think that’s BWP.”

Kirby and Loeffler-Kemp both said they were leaning toward MSBA, stating Tuesday night they felt more comfortable having a firm that works exclusively in Minnesota.

“(BWP’s) search focus has been where their offices are located,” Kirby said. “We need someone who is well versed in Minnesota school finance. Though I am concerned MSBA would only receive Minnesota candidates.”

Loeffler-Kemp said she talked to board members from Moorhead and Winona, and both gave glowing reviews about MSBA’s transparency through the process.

“I’m also concerned about the accessibility (of BWP) and I think that having a firm in the state would help with that,” she said.

Board member Jill Lofald said she worried about BWP being transparent after doing her own research and looking through the firm’s website, which is why she had been leaning toward MSBA.

“With MSBA, I know them and I’m comfortable with them,” Lofald said. “I think their reach would be OK and I’m worried about BWP’s accessibility.”

Lofald said BWP was her number one choice initially and that after the presentations BWP was still her number one choice. She said it was her research between the presentations and Tuesday night’s meeting that started to change her mind, but she felt comfortable voting to hire BWP.

“It’s a tough job to make tough decisions,” Lofald said.

The board also unanimously voted to make Lofald and Oswald co-liaisons between BWP and the rest of the board.

The board tabled the Essentia Health sports medicine and sponsorship contracts until next month over concerns regarding the language in the sponsorship contract.