School Board Picks Out-of-State Firm to Lead Supe Search

Nebraska-Based Search Firm Says New Superintendent Could Be Hired by April

President Wendy Sims-Moten | Credit: Paul Wellman

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The Santa Barbara Unified School District Board of Education on Tuesday night unanimously chose a nontraditional, Nebraska-based search firm over a Santa Ynez–based firm to conduct the search for its new superintendent. 

The 5-0 vote to select McPherson & Jacobson is the first major step in the district’s quest to secure a new leader after Superintendent Cary Matsuoka announced he will retire in June. 

The headhunting firm’s Ben Johnson and Daryl Adams presented to the board their process for recruiting candidates before Leadership Associates, the other firm looking to guide the district’s search. The contract price for McPherson & Jacobson was slightly higher, but upon winning the contract, its representatives matched Leadership Associate’s price of $26,500. 

Though Leadership Associates is local, the board went with McPherson & Jacobson because of its unorthodox strategies, fresh perspective, and recommendation from the California School Board Association.

“I felt like Leadership Associates feel like they know us so well, they don’t have to do a whole lot,” Boardmember Wendy Sims-Moten said after the presentations. “When you know someone so well, you can miss some things.

“McPherson & Jacobson, I really appreciated their approach,” Sims-Moten continued. “It was really relational and heartfelt. They are going to get to the heart of what’s important.”

The agreement to hire McPherson & Jacobson didn’t start out unanimous. Though all boardmembers agreed both firms were worthy, Vice President Jacqueline Reid and President Laura Capps said they favored Leadership Associates — mostly because of its local base but also because it understands the district’s surrounding community climate. Reid went even further to say that the firm picked by the board should understand the local media.

“Leadership Associates has an ear to the local media, because those voices are also important and they [Leadership Associates] should have the awareness of what they [the media] are saying, although what they say is not what happens necessarily,” Reid said. It wasn’t clear what Reid was referring to.

Johnson and Adams took turns explaining the McPherson & Jacobson process — much of which Boardmember Kate Ford supportively called “less traditional” in comparison to Leadership Associate’s more formalized approach.

Adams explained that one part of their nontraditional approach — taking candidates to breakfast before interviewing them — helps the consultants get a better feel for the candidate in a way a formal interview cannot. Part of that approach is forming a list of candidate “strengths and weaknesses” but not ranking them in any order. This extends to stakeholder groups as well.

“For a district this size, we would probably hold about 12 to 15 stakeholder group meetings,” Adams said. He said stakeholders communicate what they want in a superintendent during the meetings to help aid the process.

“We value that transparency in the process,” Adams said. “You’ll hear some people say transparent searches reduce the pool of candidates, but it is not true. The last search I did there were 45 candidates, high-quality candidates. … Some boards don’t want a community panel, but I think it’s a great idea.”

McPherson & Jacobson’s method emphasizes bringing in the “naysayers” into the process via a community panel process, Adams said, because “they tell you where you’re wrong, but if you include them in the process, they help you get it right.”

If the new superintendent leaves or it doesn’t work out at any point in the two years after he or she is hired, the firm will come back at no cost to the district. Adams thinks they can have a new supe hired by the end of April.

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