Norwalk’s commitment to secrecy not shared by others

NORWALK, Conn. – After hiring Proact Search LLC to assist in finding a new superintendent of schools, Norwalk’s Board of Education voted to keep its candidates cloaked in secrecy. It was a move met with mixed reactions, and a simple Internet search shows many school districts go public with names at some point.

The board said it was advised by Proact, a private search firm that specializes in recruiting candidates for education openings, that many good prospects would decline to be interviewed if their names were made public during the process. The fear is that current employers might react poorly to finding out their administrators are shopping for a new gig.

The behind-closed- doors nature of the search is not sitting well with everyone, including Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Bruce Mellion and potential BOE candidate Shirley Mosby.

“Certainly when there are 80 or so applicants, then reduced to 20, then reduced to 11 and then reduced to or five or six, confidentially is understood,” Mellion said on May 21. “But when there are two, three or four finalists, they should – no, they must – be made public. In this way the Norwalk community has an opportunity to see, hear and engage – I want to say again, see, hear and engage – the finalist in a way different from the board.”

Former BOE member Shirley Mosby spoke against the secrecy at Tuesday evening’s BOE meeting.

“I think the public has a right to know who you are bringing into this district,” she said, “who you’re bringing in to be among our children. … Do not go in there behind closed doors and just vote on it.”’

BOE President Mike Lyons said there had been “quite a discussion” on the topic.

“Proact told us that, in about 70 percent of their searches, finalists are introduced publicly, while in about 30 percent, the process remains confidential to the end,” Lyons said Wednesday night in an email. “They said that the choice is always with the school board. They noted that in processes that stay public to the end, searches definitely lose candidates who wish to have their applications remain confidential, but that searches can still be successfully conducted. The choice to maintain confidentiality in Norwalk was made by the Board, not Proact. Our decision was in terms of the long-term best interest of the city. Getting the best candidate has to be the highest priority.”

Lyons said past Norwalk boards have differed on the approach.

“The board that appointed Sal Corda did so with finalists presented openly, while the board that appointed Susan Marks kept the process confidential to its conclusion.”

A look at how other communities have handled the process shows many opt to bring the top two or three candidates to the public for meet-and-greets or more formal sessions where anyone can ask questions. The school districts run the gamut from small and rural to major cities. A sample:

2011: Barnstable School District on Cape Cod identified three finalists and interviewed them in public session.

2011: Cleveland, Ohio, revealed nine semifinalists, including two who withdrew. Along with the names, the board released a bio and a pithy interviewer’s comment. The search was done with Proact, although, according to the district website, the board tossed three of the firm’s recommendations and brought in one who was not on the list. There were no public events.

2012: Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.: Introduced three finalists at two public forums. The board then took feedback from the public to study before making decisions.

2013: Wake Co., N.C., introduced its final three to the public and held sessions for the public to meet them and ask questions.

2013: Vail, Colo., announced its three finalists to the public. They were to be interviewed by two citizen panels and the school board.

2013: Polk County, Fla.: Three finalists were each given two separate meet-and-greet dates with the public. All three were interviewed on separate dates in open meetings.

2013: Bellevue, Wash.: Announced three finalists, held morning and evening public forums with each, and posted the forums online.

2013: ConVal School District, NH: Proact narrowed the field to a final two candidates. The two candidates were to be interviewed by a group of parents and community/business leaders, then again by staff members from the district. Those sessions were to be followed by hour-long interviews with the school board.

2013: New Haven hired Proact to help with its search, and officials say the final three will be “brought to the community” for public vetting, according to the New Haven Independent.

2013: Manchester, N.H.: Proact gave the school board search committee a list of 12 candidates, which the panel narrowed to five for the board to consider. The board planned to reveal the names of the three finalists, who will appear at a community forum Friday, June 7. Said search committee head Ted Rokas in the New Hampshire Union Leader, “The community has to be involved. It’s not just my superintendent or the board’s superintendent, it’s the community’s superintendent.”

Proact has had plenty of successes, but the company has had a few glitches along the way. Two of the most recent:

According to a story on the My SA website, trustees of the San Antonio Independent School District voted unanimously this spring to end its contract with Proact after the lone finalist for its superintendent opening withdrew his candidacy. Several school board members said the company did not properly vet the candidate, the story said.

After the finalist was announced, information emerged detailing improper credit card charges, a foreclosure on his $1.1 million home, a $150,000 debt to the IRS and a grand jury probe into a laptop incentive program he developed with his staff at a Tucson, Ariz., school district.

The problem came just two years after Proact was hired by an Anchorage, Alaska, school district to help with its search. The district received more than 150 applications and winnowed then to two finalists, who were presented publicly in a meet-and-greet before the board settled on its choice.

That choice, a former Florida superintendent who left his position before the end of his contract, according to published reports, had withdrawn his name as a finalist at a Las Vegas district when he took a job with Edison College in Florida. That job did not go well, according to a report in the Naples Daily News, and the college voted to release him from his duties. In Anchorage, he was given a three-year contract, but retired after one year, citing family concerns.

In another instance, Lyons pointed out, Proact was called by the Omaha, Neb., school district to restart its process after another company sent them a candidate who was hired, then resigned after it was discovered she had sent sexually explicit emails to her significant other using her school district email.

Lyons said that, although Norwalk taxpayers will not have any input into the vetting and hiring of the next superintendent, they will eventually have the last word.

The board is a representative body, he said, elected to do the public’s bidding. “Bottom line is you don’t pick a superintendent by a show of hands in the audience,” he said. “… If we make a bad choice, those people in the audience can vote us out of office.”


6 responses to “Norwalk’s commitment to secrecy not shared by others”

  1. M. Murray

    The Norwalk taxpayers will have to do their own vetting after a finalist is announced and hopefully before a contract is signed. Taxpayers now have the ability through Internet and blogs to dig deep into backgrounds of candidates, and hopefully some will visit the candidates prior communities to speak to people on the street there to find out if there are any skeletons. I know I will do my part to find out if there are any issues lurking in the background.

  2. Ergo

    Given the fact that BOE has made a real mess of our public school system due to THEIR accounting mistake (part time librarians, part time vice principals, severe budget cuts) I think they owe it to the people of Norwalk to let us know who the final candidates are. If they don’t, it would be viewed as yet another middle finger point to the taxpayers and students of Norwalk.

  3. ScopeonNorwalk

    The BOE doesn’t listen to NPS employees (including Principals, teachers, Nurses) when they tell them things and give feedback. What makes you think they care about what the public wants…The only way to get rid of them is to vote them out. 4 BOE members are up for re-election. These aren’t appointments, people went to the polls and selected these people. Next time, pay a little more attention. How many current or former educators are on the BOE? I gotta tell you, that’s part of the problem. I count (and correct me if I’m wrong because I would like to know and I can’t find bios of most of them) 2 with education background but only 1 with possible K-12 background, and a bus driver (the next closest thing to an education background)…and about those legal fees, who is getting paid and who are they connected to. Follow the money

  4. Peter I Berman

    The last thing Norwalk needs is a role for the NFT – reportedly the most hostile teachers union in CT – to have any role in the Supt selection process. Readers should obtain copies of the NFT’s Vanguard Bulletin and see for themselves how the teachers on our public payroll view the BOE and our Supts. It’s bloody awful to have public school teachers behave so disrespectfully and unprofessional.

    Readers ought to take solace that the current BOE had the guts to take the hostile NFT to arbitration and won a resounding victory saving the City $2.6 million and exposing the “found no where else” absurdly generous contract provisions.

    It’s long past time to stop the ill informed nit picking at the BOE and recognize that any group that could take the hostile NFT and win a major victory has the intelligence to make a fine choice of Supt. given the hostile NFT and the unprofessional behavior of our public school teachers through their comments in the Vanguard.

    Of course if Norwalk had normal professional relations wih it’s public school teachers union then the possibility of an open selection could be a viable option.

    Lets end the destructive criticism of the BOE. It’s the best we’ve had in decades. Lets remember how Dr Marks was treated by the NFT. Norwalk’s tremendously handicapped by the long standing hostile NFT. Lets give the BOE the trust they deserve. No other BOE in 30 years had the courage
    to take on the union wih he 5th highest salaries in the state. They’ve earned their spurs and then some.

    So let it be.

  5. 0ldtimer

    Clearly, there is no simple answer as to how a school superintendent should be selected. If the public had absolute confidence in the BOE, letting the BOE make the selection with no public input might be acceptable. Apparently, the public does not have that level of confidence, even though there are indications this board is a better BOE than some previous. If the BOE doesn’t want the public to get even at election time, a reasonable compromise would be a wise move. There are an awful lot of voters fed up with the arrogance of this administration and planning to vote against incumbents, hoping for more transparent, open, conduct of the public’s business. Suggestion, narrow the field down to two or three and then let the public see who they are and what they have accomplished professionally. Then, allow time for feedback and listen to it, before making the final choice and don’t announce that until it has been accepted.

  6. Piberman


    Could you provide a list of those publicly objecting to the selection process other than NFT’s Mellion and Ms Mosby ? Isn’t the real story that the community is satisfied with the BOE process ?

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