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Normandy hires superintendent search firm

Entrance to Normandy High School campus
Google Maps screen capture
The gates of Normandy High School, one of the institutions in the Normandy School District.

The Normandy Schools Collaborative has hired a Chicago-area search firm to help find a new superintendent, but that person may not have an education background.

The district’s governing board voted Thursday night to hire ProAct Search for $25,000, with the goal of having a new superintendent in place by July 1. The district’s new leader would replace Ty McNichols, who resigned last month; Charles Pearson, who had been head of the appointed governing board, is serving as interim superintendent.

Board members said ProAct, which was chosen out of an initial field of eight firms, will be looking not only at typical superintendents with careers in education but also at so-called non-traditional candidates. Vice President Richard Ryffel, who led the board’s efforts to find the search firm, said casting a wider net could increase the chances of a successful search.

He also pointed to the firm’s successful track record in finding superintendents for the St. Louis area in recent years.

“We have a shortened time frame here,” Ryffel said in an interview after the board meeting, “and they were convincing in their ability to lay out an aggressive time frame and yet do a thorough, traditional and non-traditional search.

“They have a lot of experience locally with districts like this, and because of the three recent searches they did in the area for similar districts, those being (St. Louis Public Schools), Jennings and Ferguson-Florissant, they have a pretty good inventory of candidates, both traditional and non-traditional, that obviously did not prevail in those three searches that are a potential reservoir of candidates for us.”

Someone who is not an educator but has experience in turning around struggling organizations could be a plus for Normandy, Ryffel said.

“If we're looking for a transformative leader, a change agent, whatever kind of words you want to put on somebody who can change the culture and lead an organization effectively, a non-traditional candidate would be somebody that doesn't necessarily have an educational background,” he said.

“It could be a corporate CEO, it could be ex-military, it could be an attorney, it could be a business leader. Anybody that is non-traditional would be a non-educational background, so leadership, management skills but not per se a curriculum and education background.”

Charles Pearson, seated, talks with Superintendent Ty McNichols.
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Charles Pearson, seated, talks with then-Superintendent Ty McNichols last year.

McNichols resigned as the board was planning a search for a new superintendent anyway. He had been hired in 2013, before the state’s transfer law was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court, and the financial drain on Normandy’s budget prompted state educational officials to take over the district’s finances and then dissolve it altogether.

Its successor, the collaborative, took over on July 1, and board members said they wanted to have their own hand-picked leader in charge of trying to improve Normandy’s academic standing, which was the worst in the state last year.

McNichols is receiving his salary through the end of June, a total of $78,000; in exchange, he may be called upon to act as a consultant.

To prepare for the superintendent search, Normandy invited residents to respond to an online survey about the qualities they would like to see in the district’s new leader. Ryffel and board President Andrea Terhune said they have not had a chance to review the results of the survey but they expect to use them in a public session with representatives of ProAct on March 7.

Having the survey completed will help Normandy meet its compressed timeline, Ryffel said.

“Every firm that we talked to,” he said, “talked about their process for getting at what the community wants, and we of course pointed out that we're already down the road with doing our own process.”

Despite beginning the search process so late – Ferguson-Florissant and Mehlville recently announced the selection of their new superintendents who will also be starting on July 7 – Ryffel said he is confident ProAct can help them find a suitable choice.

“Every firm we spoke to, not just the firm that we selected, was very confident that more than an ample supply of good candidates would be available to us in that time frame,” he said.

Asked where the money to pay the search firm will come from, out of the district’s tight budget, Terhune said:

“We're going to go back and look at our budget and try to figure it out.”

Consultants report

At Thursday night’s meeting, the board was told that after a judge declared Normandy schools to be unaccredited, and the deadline to transfer to an accredited school was extended to April 1, 10 more students applied to transfer, bringing the total of new applicants to 95.

The board also heard reports from two consultants, Diana Bourisaw and Patty Corum, on the work they have done to help Normandy students and personnel thrive in the first year of the district’s new structure.

Corum, whose experience is in human resources and coaching, said she has worked to make sure supervisors give proper feedback that can help lead to improved academic performance.

“If what we’re doing isn’t impacting the learning of students,” she told the board, “then why are we doing what we’re doing?”

Bourisaw, who has served as superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools and elsewhere, said many of the district’s first-year teachers are facing problems with both content and classroom management. Not all are struggling, she added, but those who are need help so they can improve.

'We have some excellent first-year teachers. I'm amazed they are first-year teachers.' -- Consultant Diana Bourisaw

“We have some excellent first-year teachers,” Bourisaw said. “I’m amazed they are first-year teachers….

“Teachers want to do well. Can we provide the support they need to be successful? For children to succeed, (teachers) have to succeed.”

Asked after the meeting what kind of consulting work McNichols might be asked to do for the district as part of his severance agreement, Pearson said:

“What I plan to use him for is around the data analysis that I have to do. I have not been thinking about how to track that as much as I have been trying to get the results I need to report to the state what we're doing.”

Will whatever consulting he does be made public, so Normandy residents can see what they are paying for?

“We've been transparent about most things and we'll continue to be transparent,” Pearson said. “We will not treat him any differently from anybody else.”

McNichols’ separation agreement includes language that lists as one of his obligations his availability to provide “advice and counsel as requested” to the Normandy board, but district officials say his pay is not tied to his consulting for the district.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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