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BOE updates superintendent search

Newspaper with job search
Dr. Denita Dowell-Reavis

At a special called Alexander County Board of Education meeting February 7th, Board Chair Robert Arguelles presented four options to conduct the search for a superintendent. Dr. Jennifer Hefner announced she is retiring July 1st after 10 years in the position. The search costs range from $7,000 to $30,000. Arguelles also ranked the options based on the agencies’ ability to complete a successful search, the costs and timeline.

The Masonboro Group, a law firm based in Wilmington, would propose to have the superintendent hired and contracted by April 26th for $18,500.

The Western Piedmont Council of Governments would charge a maximum of $7,000 and intends to complete the search by June with a start date for the new candidate in July.

The North Carolina School Board Association has conducted 201 searches statewide and has assisted 84 of the state’s school boards. The NCSBA estimated costs are a maximum of $25,000 including travel and advertising costs. The association’s proposal would choose and announce a new superintendent by May 6th. Most recently, the NCSBA completed searches for Orange and Davidson Counties.

Arguelles also contacted the Asheville law firm of Campbell Shatley. The firm already provides advice for the district. The firm’s quote for a full selection process is $30,000 maximum and the group would intend to have a candidate hired by June. Chris Campbell, a lead attorney with the firm, says the group is not a search firm but could assist the board.

Each of the proposals would have board members interview 3-5 candidates. 

The special called meeting started with board member Brigette Rhyne asking that the superintendent search item be removed from the special called meeting agenda. She said the board had not officially approved the retirement notice Dr. Hefner gave on January 16th. She also said, “The board did not act as a board in asking that the recruiting process to start and for the options to be given to us.” Board members rejected Rhyne’s argument and approved Arguelles keeping the item on the agenda. Her efforts failed in a 6-1 vote. 

According to research from the Washington State School Directors’ Association, the number of applicants for a typical superintendent position has diminished over time. Dr. Michael Boring writes, “Twenty years ago, a superintendent position in a district of 12,000 students would attract perhaps 50 applicants. That number today could be half of that, and in some cases, even lower. The number of applicants for smaller districts has diminished as well with some pools having five or fewer.” 

A factor that could affect applications for the Alexander County position is the number of other positions open statewide or in the region. Currently, Thomasville City Schools, Weldon City Schools, and Camden County are searching for a superintendent. The leader of Mount Airy Schools is stepping down, but the district has not announced a search yet. 

The search for a new superintendent can be invasive for the candidates. Those who apply often are reviewed with checks on their credit, criminal background, internet, and social media postings. Some districts even consider reports from medical exams for the candidates. North Carolina personnel laws entitle the applicants the right to confidentiality. 

Dr. Hefner announced her retirement to staff on January 18th. She joins multiple other North Carolina superintendents across the state in her decision. Twenty-six superintendents left the position before the 2023-2024 school year according to Jack Hoke, the executive director of the North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association. There are 115 districts in North Carolina. According to a University of Tennessee researcher, nationwide the superintendent turnover rate was up three percent in the past few years to 17.1 percent. According to EdNC, eighteen North Carolina districts hired new superintendents in 2020-21 and in the following year (2022-2023) twenty-two districts hired new superintendents. 

In fifty-four of North Carolina’s 100 counties, the school system is the biggest employer. According to Human Resources Director Alisha Cloer, Alexander County Schools has 740 full and part-time employees. 

The Alexander County School Superintendent is responsible for a budget of $69 million dollars with more than half coming from state funds. 

The search for a superintendent can be completed in as little as three months, but most groups with experience prefer the process to be about six months long. The candidate is expected to reside in the county after taking the position. 

School Boards typically offer a contract of two to four years for a new superintendent. The person selected must have an academic focus while being knowledgeable about law and policy and fit within the community.

Rhyne added that she was not comfortable spending the amount of money in the proposals while the district is in a budget crunch.

Arguelles said that in the business world, companies often spend 30-40% of a candidate's first year salary to recruit. 

The board did not take any action on the information provided by Arguelles, but the chair said he would like the members to make a decision at the next meeting on February 13th to allow the new superintendent to be brought on board by July.