Superintendent shopping season's here

Superintendent shopping season's here

In 2012, the Champaign school board paid a Minneapolis-based search firm more than $20,000 to find the district's next leader.

The board wound up hiring someone from just down the hall at the Mellon Administrative Center, promoting Judy Wiegand from assistant superintendent to the top job.

In 2007, after finding its previous two superintendents working in the principal's office at the high school in town, Hoopeston Area paid the Illinois Association of School Boards $3,600 to bring the district a qualified chief.

The board ended up giving the job to Hank Hornbeck, the high school principal at the time.

Of the three area school districts with superintendents set to retire this spring, only Mahomet-Seymour used its search firm funds — $11,000 in 2012 — to land a leader from the outside the last time it went looking. And the small town where the IASB found now-Superintendent Rick Johnston — El Paso, the one in Illinois — is less than an hour's drive from Mahomet.

With the start of the school year — and the unofficial kickoff to prime superintendent recruitment season — just days away, two of the three boards have already voted to pay the IASB thousands to start searching for candidates. Mahomet-Seymour plans to spend no more than $11,900; Hoopeston will fork over $7,800.

And Unit 4 might not be far behind. Its school board will meet with an IASB representative this week to begin preliminary discussions on the search process, according to President Chris Kloeppel.

"We need to get going on this. ... But we need to get an idea of what we want to do as a board and an understanding of how it's been done in the past," said Kloeppel, who, like the six others on the board, has never been involved in a superintendent search.

'Suddenly, there was Judy'

Kloeppel says there's no indication board members are leaning toward hiring a new leader from inside or outside the district. Historically speaking, there's been no clear trend with the job Judy Wiegand now holds — three of the past six Unit 4 superintendents have been taken from other districts; three have been internal hires.

Opinions from those who've made the decisions are split, as well.

Phil Van Ness was on the boards that hired Carol Stack, then the principal at Jefferson Middle School, as the interim superintendent, and Arthur Culver, who spent nine years running Unit 4 after moving here from Texas.

In Stack's case, Van Ness said, the board needed someone qualified to "hold down the fort" for one school year. Once the interim position was filled, the team hired Ray Associates Inc., at a cost of $17,500, to conduct a national search.

The weighty issues the district was facing at the time drove the need for a more expansive — and expensive — hunt, Van Ness said.

"We were at a particularly difficult crossroads. We were being confronted with civil rights lawsuits. We had serious issues with very low test scores for children of color, but white students as well," he said. "Some of our African-American students were failing big time. In a couple different schools, only 18 percent of our minority students were at or above grade standards.

"We needed someone with a track record of success of leveling the playing field for everyone."

Culver was ultimately chosen for a variety of reasons, Van Ness said. His insistence on bringing in his own team of administrators was attractive, despite how some took the news. "We got a little crap for that, but we needed change," Van Ness said.

The board liked that Culver had a set of "philosophies" in place for what makes a successful district. He'd been a head administrator before and had experience dealing with difficult minority issues, not so much because he himself was an African-American but because he'd spent years working in Texas districts with large minority populations.

"It was something we needed at the time. The reality of it is, it worked. We're no longer under the consent decree, academics were vastly improved under his administration. He had individual issues of his own, but he got the job done we hired him to do," Van Ness said, adding that the best time to bring in someone from the outside is when a district is looking to make "dramatic changes to a structure."

But after Unit 4's nine-year leader resigned suddenly in 2011 during the most difficult time of the school year to go searching for a permanent superintendent, the school board found itself in a bind. It didn't want to rush into a hire without thoroughly vetting candidates, so it hired another interim candidate — this time, from a nearby district.

Robert Malito, who came from the Normal schools system, was one of two candidates who made it to final interview rounds, according to former board member Jamar Brown.

"A lot of us were leaning toward the other candidate. On paper, he was amazing," Brown said.

But during the interviews, Malito stood out as the "hands-down best choice," Brown said. He provided a clear plan for what he wanted to do as interim superintendent, with a precision that "blew us out of the water," he said.

Malito served from July to December of 2011 as the board looked for a permanent leader. It paid School Exec Connect $21,795 to conduct a national search, interviewed candidates and even offered the job to an out-of-towner.

But when that fell through and the board considered starting over, Wiegand applied for the position, something she was against initially.

"It was starting to get late in the process and we were worried because we're not an easy district to work for. It's hard to find people who want to come to Champaign, particularly then. People weren't knocking down our door," said then-board member Kristine Chalifoux.

"But then suddenly, there was Judy, this known entity. She had some incredible skills, but she had never been superintendent before, so there was a learning curve. But she excited us."

The board worked out a deal that would make Malito her mentor until the end of December, then Wiegand would take over.

Then 49, Wiegand was a 25-year veteran in the district, spending 20 of those years at Centennial High School — as a special education teacher, dean of students, assistant principal and principal. She was the district's director of secondary education assessment and professional development from 2007-10, then assistant superintendent for achievement and pupil services.

"When she said 'yes,' we were thrilled," Chalifoux said. "She knew everything and could hit the ground running, but she also provided change. She was completely different from the previous administration — and we liked that."

Deadlines approaching

Compared to other large districts across the area, Champaign is alone in not having a set superintendent hiring pattern.


— Urbana found its past two superintendents without search firms — both Preston Williams (2007-13) and Don Owen (since 2013) were already working in the district. It has gone the consultant route in just one of the past six superintendent searches.

Urbana's board views hiring internal candidates as a good way to maintain "consistency and the strategic direction of the district," Owen said.

— Just before Christmas 2014, the Danville school board found a replacement for the retiring Mark Denman in suburban Chicago, where Alicia Geddis had spent nearly two decades in mostly administrative roles for the Dolton district.

She was the first of the last five superintendents to come from outside Danville schools and the first found through a search firm, according to Dianna Kirk, the district's director of human resources. The board hired School Exec Connect at the cost of $17,500 to look nationwide for Denman's replacement.

— Mahomet-Seymour's contract with IASB allows for a national search, as well, whereas Hoopeston Area will review candidates from across Illinois and Indiana, Hornbeck said.

With plans to have Johnston's successor selected by the end of November, the IASB is now accepting applications for Mahomet-Seymour's top job. That process will close on Sept. 12, with a consultant due to make recommendations to the board near the end of that month. Interviews will be held in October, board President Max McComb said.

Hoopeston opened the application process on July 30 and will close it on Sept. 27. First-round interviews will be held on Nov. 3, 4 and 5, with Round 2 penciled in for Nov. 12. The goal is to have someone appointed and approved by Christmas, Hornbeck said.

'Messing with the plan'

The next Mahomet-Seymour superintendent will have a starting salary in the neighborhood of $190,000, depending on experience. That gives McComb confidence that the board will find a collaborative innovator who acts with integrity and puts students first.

"We're really trying to get out in front of the search right now," he said. "There's a really, really competitive situation right now as far as trying to hire quality and talented administrators goes.

"Part of what is driving this is the retirement situation in the state of Illinois. Rick (Johnston) is doing great things here. We think he's doing a wonderful job and I think we'd like to hang onto him for longer, but we know he needs to get his retirement locked down now because the state is messing with the plan. There's pressure there."

Wiegand said the fiscal state of the state is also a primary reason behind her decision to retire this spring. The state budget and pension are big issues that "have to be addressed" if Illinois wants to attract and keep quality educators, she said.

"We're finding throughout the country there's a shortage when it comes to people going into education, but it's even harder in the state of Illinois," Wiegand said. "You take a chance if you stay in the system. I know some of my colleagues feel when you get to that point where you can have full retirement, in a state such as Illinois, you have to make that decision."

While Champaign school board members look forward to launching a superintendent search, it pains some of them to see Wiegand go.

"What I will miss most is the easy, trusting relationship," board Vice President Amy Armstrong said. "We work with respect, professional approach, but also with humor and friendship. She trusts us and I trust her to do the next right thing for our district."

"As is often the case with someone in Judy's position, a lot goes unnoticed," Kloeppel said. "But I can tell you that Judy every day works hard and tirelessly for the betterment of all of our students in Unit 4. The passion and concern that she has for the students will certainly be something that I look for in our next superintendent. Unit 4 is better because of Dr. Wiegand."


At least three area districts will have superintendent hires to make after this school year. Here’s the direction each went the five previous times they filled the position:


Michael McCain: Hired from within the district, originally as an interim superintendent replacing Timothy Hyland in 1997-98. Left in 2001-02.

Carol Stack: Hired from within the district as interim superintendent for the 2001-02 school year.

Arthur Culver: One of several candidates brought to the board by Ray Associates Inc. The firm was paid $17,500 to conduct a national search that ended with the hiring of Culver from Longview, Texas. He worked in Unit 4 from 2002-11.

Robert Malito: Served as interim superintendent from July to December 2011 after Culver’s resignation. He came to Champaign from the Normal school district.

Judy Wiegand: The board paid School Exec Connect $21,795.79 to conduct a national search for a permanent superintendent. The former Centennial High principal was promoted from within the district and has served as superintendent since January 2012.

Hoopeston Area

Leo Huffman: Promoted from his post as principal of what was then called John Greer Junior High. He served from 1965-85, replacing Paul Seitsinger, who led the district for five years.

Dale Miller: Hired from outside the district, the former Bethany superintendent served from 1985-90.

Don Dean: The first of three consecutive Hoopeston high school principals to get bumped up, he served from 1990-98.

Mark Conolly: Hired in 1998, he was 53 and nine years into the job when he suffered a massive heart attack and died.

Hank Hornbeck: The first hire the district made after getting outside help for a formal search — from the Illinois Association of School Boards, for a fee of $3,600. Hornbeck has been superintendent since 2007.


Fred Dale: Served from 1970-83.

Lee Rogers: Wooed from southern Illinois, he spent 12 years as superintendent, leaving after the 1993-94 school year.

John Alumbaugh: Hired from Champaign Unit 4, he held the top job in Mahomet from 1994 until the end of the 2005-06 school year.

Keith Oates: The school board paid School Exec Connect around $17,000 to conduct the search that led to the hiring of the Amboy administrator, who held the job for six years.

Rick Johnston: An $11,000 search by the Illinois Association of School Boards ended with the hiring of the El Paso-Gridley employee during the 2012-13 school year.