Search Starts for New Schools Leader

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Saying that Laguna Beach offers extraordinarily high salaries for a small school district, a search firm executive laid out his strategy to find the district’s new superintendent by next April at a special Laguna Beach Unified School District meeting Monday.

The search will vet out the highest qualified candidates from across the country, offering a starting salary commensurate to the outgoing superintendent’s final salary, executive search consultant Joe Farley, Ph.D., told school board members. From there, pay will be negotiable, determined by experience and qualifications, board members decided.

Farley’s search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates of Palo Alto, was selected earlier this month to recruit a successor to Sherine Smith, whose final annual salary with benefits was $269,032. Smith announced her intention to retire in June with an annual retirement pay of approximately $150,000.

A new superintendent is expected to be selected by April 18. Final candidates will be interviewed during the weeks of March 14 and 21. Front-runners will visit the district on April 7.

Coronado Unified School District in San Diego was mentioned by board members as comparable to Laguna Beach. The superintendent there earns an annual income with benefits of $206,735, according to Transparent California’s latest, 2014, listings. The listing also shows that the Coronado school district has 1,039 employees comparted to Laguna’s 587. Like Laguna, Coronado offers one high school, one middle school and two elementary schools as well as a school for the arts, an alternative education academy and a preschool.

The superintendent for Carmel Unified School District in Monterey County, another comparable district, earns $301,935 a year. Carmel offers one high school, one middle school, three elementary schools and a continuation high school and employs 639 employees, according to the school’s website and Transparent California.

“Your district has a history of paying more and that’s going to be a motivation as a professional opportunity,” said Farley, comparing Laguna Beach Unified School District, which has only four schools, to other small districts.

If the board agrees, Farley said he would tell qualified candidates that the district will match their current salary. “I don’t want to lose the best candidate over a few dollars,” said board member Bill Landsiedel. “We’re talking about the leader of the district. I want to make sure we don’t lose a killer candidate.”

Some candidates may be over-qualified, offering more than the district needs, pointed out board member Carol Normandin, who owns an executive search firm. Board members also stated they wanted applicants to give their full attention to the job without using the position as a stepping stone for higher aspirations, at least not for several years.

Current Supt. Smith earned her doctorate during her six-year tenure as LBUSD’s superintendent and recently took a part-time position teaching an online course on school finances and resources for Brandman University in Irvine, which is part of the Chapman University System. Smith was not required to attend the planning meeting with board members Monday.

The search company’s next step, Farley said, is to ask each school board member and Smith in individual interviews about district particulars and their preferences for the district’s next top executive. The data will be used to develop selection criteria and a leadership profile, according to the firm’s schedule.

“If we talk to enough people and we listen well enough, there will be very strong opinions about the desired characteristics, what the issues are in the district and what they’re proud of,” Farley said. “I will learn a lot about Laguna Beach, but so will you when we present all of this.”

Probably five candidates will come before the board for the final selection, 10 if the pool is highly competitive, Farley said.

The firm will also organize focus groups to learn how different groups feel about desired qualities of a superintendent. The focus groups will include students, parents and district employees as well as residents and city officials.

An online survey will also be available, asking respondents to identify the most important qualities of a district leader. Three public focus groups are expected to be conducted prior to the board’s Dec. 8 meeting, when the search firm is scheduled to have completed a review of applicants’ profiles and initial interviews.

If the board can’t guarantee confidentiality, the search will result in less-qualified applicants, as applicants do not want to jeopardize their current jobs, Farley said.

Marketing the district as a desirable workplace to potential applicants is also part of the plan, Farley said. “You have extraordinary schools and kids,” he said, as Landsiedel interjected “ocean view.”

“Ocean view and extraordinarily high home prices,” Farley continued. Only 20 percent of the applicants are expected to come from out-of-state, he said. The search firm will research finalists beyond submitted references as part of a candidate’s background check.

Surprises in who lands the job are expected, said Farley, who asked board members to let him know about possible candidates already working for the district.

“I can tell I’m going to have fun working with you guys,” he said. “You’re an energetic board with a big process ahead of you.”

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