Davenport Schools finished its on-site visits Thursday with the three finalists — Eric Knost, Robert Kobylski and William Schneder — for superintendent.
There was not a public forum in the process, much to the distress of some parents in the District Wide Davenport PTO group.
In Iowa, guidelines for hiring superintendents are not as stringent as in other states. Some states, like Indiana, require a public forum before a candidate can be hired; other states, like Minnesota, require the interviews with the school board to be open to the public under state open meeting laws.
According to Iowa Code, the requirements and stipulations for a school board’s hiring process are loosely defined, and almost entirely up to the board. Interviews can be — and are — closed to the public under Iowa Code Section 21.5, to “prevent needless and irreparable injury to that individual’s reputation,” as some candidates already at the helm of school districts would not want their current districts to know they’re applying for a new job.
“Given the fact that we know our district is in crisis, we know that we’re at risk in losing accreditation, we know that our administrators have illegally spent $13 million … we think greater transparency is required to build public trust,” said Kari Dugan, one of the founders of the District Wide Davenport PTO group.
In addition to visiting with superintendent finalists this week, Davenport also underwent a Phase II audit to address noncompliance in disproportionality and special education. The district is being ordered by the School Budget Review Committee to make up more than $13 million spent without authority over the past few years.
School board director Julie DeSalvo said the district was following the guidance of HYA, the consulting firm charged with the search for Davenport’s next superintendent.
“Part of why we hired them … is their expertise,” she said via phone call. “We worked through all of that with them for some time.”
The resulting public input was “representative sampling” of district stakeholders, DeSalvo said. In an email, DeSalvo said the “variety of stakeholders” included students and parents, community and agency partners, city leaders and elected officials, business partners and corporate leaders, classified staff, teachers and DEA representatives, principals and administrators and the Davenport School Board. It was not a random selection.
While DeSalvo said the board “knew [they] wanted to hear from community groups,” she declined to name any specific group contacted by the board except for the Hilltop Business Association.
“It’s a lot of the community groups that we work with on a regular basis,” she said. “We have great partnerships and relationships. They’re very common to the city.”
District Wide Davenport PTO, which is largely focused on special education issues in the district, was not one of the groups involved.
“We were not invited, and we asked to be invited,” Dugan said.
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Executive Director of School Administrators of Iowa Roark Horn said public forums were “extremely rare” in Iowa, and even meetings with “select community members” were still “fairly rare.”
“I really, barely see that,” he said via phone call. “ … Parental input, in the hiring process, really comes down to voting in board members that represent them. The hope is that they’ll attract the right leader who will go ahead and right the district.”
Horn added that he “would advocate for” hiring a firm — as Davenport hired HYA — to handle the search and hiring process, as they are more familiar with the legalities of the process.
Hiring a firm was the only recommendation Horn made.
“There’s really no recommended best practice,” he said. “ … It’s pretty much up to the district. Still, [hiring a superintendent] is probably the most important thing a board can do.”
“We think Davenport is in a different boat than the average school district,” Dugan said. “The Iowa State School Board has been very clear that they need to increase their transparency.”
Mary Schaefer, spokeswoman for the Illinois Association of School Administrators, said it was a similar situation across the river in Illinois.
“It’s really a local board decision on hiring,” she said via phone call.
For community members not invited to meet the finalists, Davenport encouraged questions to be emailed to the district. DeSalvo said answers would be delivered to the individuals asking questions, but that answers would not be made public.
“Our intention would be to respond to the person who asked the question,” she said. “ … But we’re not going to make those public, because we’re not sure of what the intent with asking it was.”
Dugan said she had submitted questions more than a week ago, but hadn’t gotten a response yet, and didn’t know anyone who had.
“With the Phase II [audit happening this week], it’s possible they haven’t gotten to it,” she said.
The new superintendent is expected to start July 1.