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Board agrees to launch search for new schools superintendent

South Whidbey School Board Chairman Rich Parker talks about the job search at Wednesday’s workshop.  - Brian Kelly / The Record
South Whidbey School Board Chairman Rich Parker talks about the job search at Wednesday’s workshop.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

LANGLEY — The search is on.

Well, almost.

The South Whidbey School District has decided to forgo looking for an interim chief to replace departing District Superintendent Fred McCarthy, and will instead launch a search for a permanent replacement.

It was a remarkable turnaround for the board, as some members noted how they had walked into a special workshop on Wednesday thinking they would vote instead for a search for a temporary hire.

The big switch came after more than two hours of talk about the type of leader now needed, and an acknowledgement of the issues currently consuming the school district: declining enrollment, the ongoing school consolidation effort, student achievement and trust issues between the board, school workers and the community.

School Board Member Fred O’Neal said the board will need to be pretty particular about its choice for McCarthy’s replacement.

“I think it behooves us to have very high standards and not settle just because time is getting tight,” O’Neal said. “Let’s test the water and see who’s out there and what their strengths and weaknesses are.”

School Board Member Leigh Anderson agreed, and told school employees who were at the workshop that their input influenced her decision.

“He or she is going to be your boss. It’s important to do the search now,” Anderson said.

McCarthy announced plans to retire this past month, and his last day as district superintendent will be June 30.

O’Neal urged his fellow board members to “hedge their bets” and have a backup candidate to serve as an interim superintendent if the right permanent hire cannot be found.

“Let’s make sure we’ve got an interim in our pocket if we get down to that and we don’t have to, at the last minute, scramble around,” O’Neal said.

The school board is expected to meet later this month with consultants who can conduct the search for a new superintendent. Estimates of the search run to as much as $25,000.

At the start of Wed-nesday’s workshop, board members hinted they were leaning toward finding an interim superintendent. Some said the cost of the search would be less — as well as the person’s salary — and wondered if the tough issues being faced by the school district would scare away potential candidates.

But Board Member Steve Scoles said the district needs a strong leader, not someone to act as a caretaker until the dust settles on any current controversies.

“I don’t see what we gain by pressing the pause button and waiting a year or more,” Scoles said.

It didn’t make sense to quibble about the cost of the search, he said. He noted the $15,000 just spent on the unsuccessful bond election, and added that selecting a superintendent would be the most important decision the board could make.

“It seems like such a mosquito bite,” Scoles said of the cost of a search.

District employees pressed the board to find a superintendent who would stick around, and said some would look at an interim boss as a lame duck. Many school districts are facing the same issues — student achievement, declining revenues — or even greater challenges, they said, adding that South Whidbey also offers many attributes that the handful of other districts currently searching for superintendents can’t match.

“I think we owe it to our staff, and our community and our students to find the best person,” Sue Terhar, the superintendent’s administrative assistant, told the board.

Staff comments, and the hope that an inclusive search process could pull together different factions in the community, convinced the board to look for a long-term replacement for McCarthy.

“I kind of walked in these doors ... really leaning toward an interim,” said School Board Chairman Rich Parker.

Unlike an interim hire, a permanent chief of schools would need to work harder to collaborate, compromise and build long-term relationships, he said.

“That, I think, is the big difference between the two,” Parker said.

But Parker said he was also worried that the district wouldn’t find a “Superman” candidate to take over, and that there would be political pressure to choose anyone rather than conduct another search after a failed first attempt.

“I don’t want to be in that position,” Parker said, adding that he was also concerned about a split board vote on the hiring decision.

Superintendents have a code, he said.

“There’s kind of an unwritten law. If you don’t get 5-0, don’t take the job,” he said.

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