Superintendent search begins anew in North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District

Superintendent Patty Phillips
Superintendent Patty Phillips

District 622 board members set May 26 hiring deadline

A superintendent search that began in October is unexpectedly stretching well into May in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District.

The school board held a special meeting Tuesday, April 28, to discuss its next steps in the superintendent search process after failing to reach an agreement with finalist Dr. Ryan Laager on pay and benefits.

It was an unanticipated outcome in the efforts to replace superintendent Patty Phillips, who is retiring after 10 years.

District 622 had actually gotten an early jump in the search to replace Phillips last fall by forming a superintendent search subcommittee. The school board soon hired the national search firm School Exec Connect to locate a slate of candidates.

School Exec Connect initiated a lengthy process of identifying a group of top candidates for the board to consider.  That process included sending out surveys and forming focus groups made up of community leaders, teachers, students and parents to find out what the community wanted in a superintendent. Based on that profile, the search firm identified seven candidates for the board to interview. Board members winnowed that number down to three finalists in February.

Laager, an administrator in neighboring Stillwater Area School District, was the board's top pick. The school board entered into contract negotiations with him in late February.

Following a 4-3 vote by board members April 14 to deny a proposed employment contract with Laager, the hunt for a new superintendent had to begin again.

According to a district statement, board members were unable to reach a consensus on his contract after "much deliberation and thoughtful consideration."

Salary was "insulting"

Rumors began circulating in District 622 communities that Laager was seeking a signing bonus as a part of his contract.

However, in an April 22 email to the Review, board chair Theresa Auge denied that Laager was seeking a signing bonus.

But it does appear that the compensation package was a major sticking point, and the one offered to Laager by the board was lower than what he expected.

Auge told board members April 28 that a representative with School Exec Connect said the board's salary offer to Laager was "insulting," and the starting salaries in neighboring districts for superintendents were $15,000 more per year.

Human Resource Director Keith Gray explained to the board that District 622 did "not see eye-to-eye" with School Exec Connect on a proposed salary.

Gray asserted that School Exec Connect's expectation was that the pay for a new superintendent would be what the outgoing superintendent received, but he said that philosophy was "unique."

He said District 622's view was that salary should be based on experience, and noted the district doesn't always offer "top dollar" to its employees.

Phillips' salary is $183,033 per year. The board's offer to Laager was not revealed at the meeting, but Gray urged the board come up with a new salary range based on experience this time around.

Roseville Area Schools also hired School Exec Connect to assist in finding a replacement for outgoing superintendent Dr. John Thein, who is retiring at the end of the school year.

The Roseville School Board chose Dr. Aldo Sicoli, the current Robbinsdale School District superintendent, as its top choice for the soon-to-be vacant superintendent seat. The board voted unanimously Thursday, April 30, to enter into contract negotiations with Sicoli at the same board meeting. The school board anticipates making the hire official at its May 12 meeting. Thein, who has a Ph.D., has been the district's superintendent for 17 years and makes $201,128 per year.

Stillwater Area Schools did not hire a search firm to assist in its superintendent search and handled the process internally. The Stillwater School Board approved a three-year contract with the district's new superintendent, Denise Pontrelli, for $180,000 per year. Pontrelli has a master's degree and was the assistant superintendent of Spring Lake Park Public Schools.

It's unclear if District 622's salary offer was in the same ballpark, since the board did not reveal what it offered Laager, who has a Ph.D. and is the executive director of curriculum and secondary education for Stillwater schools.

Next steps

Once it was obvious negotiations with Laager had broken down, there were rumors that Phillips would stay on as superintendent until the board picked her successor.

But Phillips said April 22 that she was firm on retiring at the end of her contract on June 30. 

So board members decided to retain School Exec Connect's services to continue the search for a new superintendent. They approved a motion unanimously "to pursue a continued contract with School Exec Connect to secure superintendent candidates with characteristics, which fit the identified profile and that a conversation / collaboration take place with superintendent Phillips and School Exec Connect to share potential candidates."

A few board members at the April 28 meeting said they were unsatisfied with the search firm's previous efforts in finding superintendent candidates that met the district's desired profile.

Auge said she made a School Exec Connect "pros and cons" list.

"My pros list is very short," she told the board.

"I fault them for not understanding us more fully," board member Nancy Livingston added.

Auge said her frustration with School Exec Connect grew when the company did not give the board a large enough timeline to have a dialogue about the candidates. She asserted the company did not return calls and emails, a problem she said she talked to the staff about "many times."

She said School Exec Connect was willing to work with the board to continue the superintendent search, and promised communication issues would not be a problem again.

"I don't think School Exec did us a disservice, but we felt rushed in the end," board member Steve Hunt said.

Board members agreed that School Exec Connect had "gotten to know the district" through its previous work. Board members also noted the company's network was valuable for the search, and for the sake of time it would be best to continue working with the firm.

District 622 will not have to pay the company any additional money than what was originally planned. As a part of the contract, the district paid the firm $10,000 up front, and will pay an additional $10,000 once a superintendent contract is signed.

The board plans to initiate a superintendent search process with the company much like it did before, but now has a narrow window of time. Board members set a "drop dead" date of Tuesday, May 26, for hiring a new superintendent.

Auge said the date needed to be firm because the new superintendent would need to give his or her previous district at least one month notice, and would need time to collaborate with superintendent Phillips, and be present for a June study session to discuss a proposed property-tax referendum.

Auge told the board that School Exec Connect warned that the pool of candidates would likely be smaller this time around because it's late in the school year.

Phillips has not actively participated in the superintendent search process until now, and has told the board several times she did not want a role in finding her successor.

But at the board's request April 28, she agreed to have a conversation with School Exec Connect to discuss some possible superintendent candidates she and her cabinet have in mind, but said ultimately its up to board members to hire someone.

Phillips told the board this was one area all seven of them should be in agreement on.

"The board's decision on a candidate should be unanimous and enthusiastic."

Joshua Nielsen can be reached at jnielsen@lillienews.com or 651-748-7822.

 
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