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Medford School Board keeps superintendent hopefuls under wraps

Medford School Board members aren't revealing the identities of candidates for superintendent because they don't want to scare away the ones who are employed elsewhere.

Ray and Associates, an executive search firm hired to recruit candidates for the position, counseled the board to conduct interviews in executive sessions and to keep the names of the candidates private until board members can agree on a finalist to vote on in a public meeting.

Board Chairman Jeff Thomas said candidates who are currently employed in other districts might withdraw from the race if their identities aren't protected.

"Ray and Associates' strong recommendation was to keep it private because they said we would lose good candidates ... if their districts found out they were interviewing for a superintendent job in Medford," he said.

Board member Tricia Prendergast was on the board when the district hired its last two superintendents, Phil Long in 2005 and Dick Gregory in 2003.

Prendergast said that during the last superintendent search the board was being "thrifty" and, rather than hire an executive search firm, sought help from several retired school district administrators.

As a result, the search garnered a pool of only about 15 to 20 applicants from neighboring states. Of those, most were about a four on a scale of one to 10, Prendergast said.

"We were really fortunate at the time we hired Phil Long to have someone of his caliber in the district already, because there were no other candidates except one who even came close to his qualifications," she said.

This time, the board hired Ray and Associates, who screened 49 applicants and recommended 12 to the board for consideration. The board interviewed six earlier this week and selected two for a second interview today .

"They not only advertised, but they also shoulder-tapped a lot of rising superstars and accomplished administrators from around the country," Prendergast said. "We could have picked any of our top three and been totally happy."

Last year, the Ashland School Board turned to the Oregon School Boards Association for help in finding a new superintendent to replace Juli Di Chiro, who was retiring.

At the beginning of the search, Ashland School Board member Jim Westerick said the board informed each candidate that their name and credentials would be made public if they were selected as a finalist.

The finalists were allowed to tour the schools and were interviewed by committees of parents, community members and staff.

In February 2013, the board announced the names of three finalists, but at the last minute, its top pick bowed out. The board began the taxing process all over again and, in May 2013, hired Jay W. Hummel as superintendent.

"We had so much community input into the process that we feel we got a great superintendent that everybody feels good about," said Westerick.

Betsy Miller-Jones, executive director of Oregon School Boards Association, said the Portland School District used the private search method to hire its superintendent, Carole Smith. The Salem School District also has conducted private superintendent searches in the past.

Miller-Jones said the private search model is used nationally by larger school districts and typically garners high-profile superintendents who don't want to risk their current jobs or might not be interested in a drawn-out public hiring process.

"The downside is it's completely confidential, and the public doesn't get to interact with the candidates," she said.

OSBA has overseen public superintendent searches in many smaller districts, including Sisters and Ashland.

According to Oregon's public-meeting laws, the board is allowed to "come to an agreement on an individual" in an executive session, but the official vote must take place at a public meeting, said Ron Bersin, executive director of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.

"They are required to vote in public but ... are not required to tell who the applicants are or even who the finalists are," he said.

Oregon public-meeting laws also state that the board must adopt hiring procedures in a public meeting, advertise for the vacancy and give the public the opportunity to comment on the employment of an officer.

In January, the board fulfilled the latter obligation when it invited parents, district staff and community members to take an online survey and choose 10 characteristics they felt were essential in the district's next superintendent. Ray and Associates used the results from the survey to screen the applicants.

After interviewing its two finalists Monday, the board may choose to continue looking, Thomas said. At that point, the board also may consider flying two members to the candidates' districts, he added.

"We could talk to them Monday and then decide let's talk to option number three," Prendergast said. "The process is very malleable."

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.