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Simi Trustees Vow Secrecy in Search for Schools Chief

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Having gone through eight superintendents in as many years, Simi Valley school trustees are determined to do their next hire right.

Criticized for cutting corners in their last search for a schools chief, Simi Valley Unified School District board members have taken pains this time to go by the book: They have hired a professional consulting firm, created a task force to screen candidates and left themselves plenty of time to make a choice.

They are also intent on keeping the names of candidates confidential to avoid possible public snafus.

“We’ve gone through so many superintendents, it’s getting a little tough to say this is a wonderful place to work,” interim Supt. Ken Moffett said. “We need a good top person to move us ahead, and if we make any more mistakes, we’re in trouble.”

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Trustees interviewed three finalists in the nationwide search during a closed-door session held after-hours Monday at the school district offices.

They refused to name the candidates who were ushered in through a back door, and they do not plan to publicly announce their final choice until after visiting the top candidate’s home district and negotiating a contract.

Among the three finalists interviewed Monday was John O’Sullivan, executive director of auxiliary services at a 60,000-student school district in Greensboro, N.C.

O’Sullivan oversees all nonacademic issues--from facilities to school buses and school redistricting--for a district three times the size of Simi Valley.

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As for the other finalists, they’re still a mystery. And Simi officials aren’t talking. Secrecy, trustees said, is the key in landing a top candidate.

“I don’t think we should ruin people’s careers,” Moffett said. “A lot of experienced, good superintendents won’t even apply if it’s not confidential. If word gets out, it can create an uproar in their own community. We don’t want a reputation for not protecting our candidates.”

Board President Janice DiFatta agreed.

“A candidate has a right to privacy, especially if they are applying to several places,” she said.

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But when it comes to naming the leader of a 20,000-student school district, some argue it is important to know who is being considered, at least when it comes to finalists.

“I’d like to know their background and what they specialize in,” parent activist Nan Mostacciuolo said. “That’s nice if we’re considering the candidates’ feelings, but we have to think about what’s best for the community. The board should be more concerned about protecting its students than its superintendent candidates.”

Jerry Gross, superintendent in neighboring the Conejo Valley district, said it is common that sitting superintendents will not apply to a district where the final three candidates are publicly announced.

“It weakens their position back home if not selected,” Gross said. “They don’t want their community to get upset that they are looking elsewhere.”

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But when a district begins to focus on one person, even traveling to their district, it becomes difficult to keep the name secret, Gross said.

“It depends on the needs of the district and the candidate,” he said. “There is no one answer for all recruitments.”

Simi Valley officials defended their decision to keep their choice secret to the very end, even when visiting the candidate’s home district, to avoid any last-minute surprises.

“What if the board goes and finds a problem?” Moffett said. “Then they have to come back and publicly say why this person won’t fit.”

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Board President DiFatta said it’s better to make sure everything is in place before announcing any names.

“In the long run it makes everything easier because so much can change,” she said. “For example, we don’t want it in the papers that a candidate turned us down because they didn’t like the contract.”

Wilson Riles, a state superintendent for 12 years before starting his own superintendent search consulting firm in Sacramento, said he believes secrecy is prudent if a district wants to attract the top candidates.

“Good candidates don’t just drop like ripe apples; you have to recruit and convince them,” Wilson said. “And when you start putting names out, they’ll withdraw.”

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As for criticism the public is left out of the loop when the selection process is secret, Wilson said the board is meant to serve as the public’s representative.

“You can’t just have the public hire somebody; it would create all kinds of confusion,” he said. “That’s why you have a board.”

Simi’s board president said the superintendent search has been open, using a 15-member panel of parent, teacher, student and community representatives to help in the first round of interviews.

“The liaison has met all the candidates and their input has been a tremendous aspect of the process,” DiFatta said. “But from this point on, it will be pretty tight-lipped until we’re ready to announce a choice.”

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