The principal search that yielded Patrick Exner as the only finalist for the top post at Washburn High School in Minneapolis was flawed by a late start, the school’s recent turmoil, a change in supervisor over the school and a lack of ambition in the search.
The district confirmed Aug. 8 that it assembled a pool of 23 applicants for the job, but forwarded only Exner to a school interview panel before he was appointed by Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.
The appointment of Exner left the district in the embarrassing position of yanking Exner away from his duties in his second day on the job after a detailed anonymous e-mail accused him of testing misconduct last month at his previous job at a charter school. Critics questioned why the district didn’t catch the issue when it vetted Exner.
“I have questions of my own that I have to have answered, and I’m going to meet with the superintendent tomorrow to get them answered,” school board Chair Alberto Monserrate said.
The job Exner filled opened up in mid-April when Carol Markham-Cousins was reassigned after a turbulent year at Washburn that involved a doll-hanging incident, and a walkout and sit-in by some students involving the athletic director post.
“Starting in April is kinda late,” said Ken La Croix, a former Hastings superintendent who specializes in school administrator searches. That’s especially true for principals, he said. And it’s getting harder to find quality principals in big cities, Monserrate said, as the job gets more complicated.
Moreover, this year was an applicant’s market for principals, said Charlie Kyte, a former Northfield superintendent and director of the state school administrators group, who now aids searches. “There were quite a few principal openings, and I know that quite a few superintendents were scrambling” to fill them, Kyte said.
Add the turmoil at Washburn, where Markham-Cousins and her approach to academic equity caused divisions in parental ranks. “These candidates were saying, ‘Hmm, there’s been a lot of trouble there — fair or unfair — and they applied elsewhere,” Kyte said. He recalled asking one retired principal if he was interested in serving at Washburn on an interim basis. “He said, ‘No way in hell,’ ” Kyte said.
Even as the search unfolded, a key player was changing as Associate Superintendent Theresa Battle, responsible for southwest schools, returned to St. Paul schools, and an interim associate was named.
But the biggest factor in the minds of some parents was a district search for the principal that several characterized as not sufficiently ambitious. They point to the fact that the district didn’t even forward its first batch of applicants to a school-level interview, reposted the job, and still only forwarded one name to the school for an interview. That was Exner, whom the teacher-parent group recommended.
“I am surprised and dismayed that given four months only one candidate could be found to bring to the stakeholders group,” said parent Margaret Richardson. “I read from that that the search was either too hasty or it was not truly a nationwide search.”
“It’s a really sad process. It’s really hard to believe,” said another parent, Jeanne Massey, who felt that the school deserved a more ambitious national search.
District spokesman Stan Alleyne conceded that the school’s issues might have scared off applicants, but emphasized that starting late with the search was also significant.
Parents like Massey say that if Exner doesn’t return to the position after being placed on administrative leave while the allegations are investigated, the district should take a different tack. “What they need to do, regardless of the time it’s going to take, is to do the search the right way,” she said. “It’s really the leadership that matters here, and we need to find the right leadership for the long term.”
She means a national search. Searchers like Kyte and La Croix say they maintain a list of up-and-coming candidates and beat the bushes for more, instead waiting passively for applicants. Plus, they said, they know the right questions to ask to elicit the kind of revealing information about applicants that minimizes chances of a bad hire that would mar their reputations as well.
Massey said another search should be more proactive in letting the school tell its own story — that there were divisions under Markham-Cousins, that the situation has changed with her departure, and that the school is on an upward trend academically.