Eyeing a vast expanse of empty tables and chairs, St. Paul school board Chairman Jon Schumacher figured it might have been the “cold, cold weather” that limited turnout at a community meeting Thursday night at Washington Technology Magnet School.

He’s hoping so, because the subject at hand was a vital one for the state’s second-largest district.

The school board is seeking the public’s help in determining what it wants in a new superintendent, and Thursday’s meeting was the first of four to be held in the coming weeks. The board will take those suggestions, create a candidate profile and then the search begins.

Also taking part in the effort are a community engagement team that has offered its services for free and an executive search firm — Ray and Associates, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa — that will be paid a fixed fee of $30,000 plus as much as $5,000 in expenses, under a contract finalized this week.

That agreement allows for the fee to be renegotiated if the workload changes and for expenses to increase if the district gives prior written approval.

At Thursday’s meeting, the attendees split up for small-group discussions run by facilitators who speak English, Hmong, Karen, Spanish and Somali. Altogether, 16 citizens participated: six at the English language table and five each at the Hmong and Karen language tables.

Attendees spoke of a desire for a superintendent who is a good listener and who ventures into the community. They warned against a superintendent who panders to politics, or who is afraid to challenge teachers to improve.

Schumacher said that the session was a good start.

The remaining meetings will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Jan. 11 at Central High, 6 to 8 p.m. Jan. 17 at Harding High, and from 10 a.m. to noon Jan. 21 at Humboldt High. People also can to go to the district’s webpage at spps.org/superintendentsearch to fill out a survey or request a separate group session run by a facilitator.

A meeting last week of district parent advisory councils drew about 150 people, organizers say.