Flint, Michigan, became a national poster child for incompetence and corruption when a small group of autocratic officials put in charge by the state’s governor made the infamous decision to supply lead-tainted water to the public.
But long before Flint’s water crisis, the practice of outsourcing critical decisions to a small circle of individuals with little vested interest in the community was also the way to determine who would run Flint’s schools.
In 2005, Walter Milton Jr. became superintendent of Flint City Schools in large part because the city hired a superintendent search firm that recommended him. But even before he officially took office, news broke that his application for the position included degrees he had not earned. After taking office, his first actions to close and consolidate schools drew opposition from parents and teachers who complained of overcrowded conditions and textbook shortages.
More outrage ensued when he hired a director of curriculum for the school district who had been convicted of child molestation. It’s not clear how Milton left his position, but his tenure lasted just 17 months and likely cost the district a hefty buy-out package.
While multiple people are usually involved in hiring decisions of this type, at least one school board member blamed the search firm that recommended him.
That firm—Schaumburg, Illinois-based Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates (HYA)—overlooked things that should have turned up in a thorough background check, particularly his fake degree and problems with his previous tenure as superintendent of schools in Fallsburg, New York. In that position, he hired the very same person convicted of child molestation he would also hire in Flint.
The man was a longtime business partner of Milton’s and raised much attention in Fallsburg. A state audit shortly after Milton left Fallsburg found that during his tenure he “was overpaid” for “vacation time, and personal items, like moving expenses, cellular phone bills, car washes and oil changes, restaurants, and video rentals.”
Flint’s flawed search for a high-quality school superintendent is not at all unusual, and Walter Milton is a classic example of a widespread phenomenon: a questionable candidate thrust into the forefront of school district leadership due to the recommendation of a hired search firm.
In an extensive investigation, Our Schools has found multiple cases in which private, for-profit companies paid by school districts to conduct searches for prospective new superintendents have recommended numerous candidates with:
- Falsified academic or professional credentials,
- Documented evidence of financial mismanagement or financial impropriety,
- Incidents of unethical behavior and conflicts of interest,
- Histories of combative work relationships with teachers, parents, school board members, or administrative staff, and
- Resumes filled with short tenures that could indicate a desire to endlessly job-hop to higher-paid positions and leave previous employers in the lurch.
Granted, school superintendent tenures are notoriously short—studies estimate anywhere from a little more than three years to slightly longer than seven. And the position is typically fraught with leadership challenges. But no one argues that a poor superintendent hire is a good thing.
Opinions vary on how much impact a school superintendent can have on students’ academic achievement, but a meta-analysis of research studies published in 2006 found a “statistically significant” correlation with superintendent “effectiveness” and student achievement, and positive effects were more apt to appear after “two years into a superintendent’s tenure.”
A 2017 dissertation on the relationship between superintendent and student outcomes found in its literature review that “in the short term, [frequent] superintendent turnover has a negative effect on student achievement.” That analysis also concluded “frequent superintendent turnover has a negative influence on the culture of a district.”
Furthermore, hiring superintendents whose tenures quickly go off the rails or end in intractable controversies that break contracts in midterm often costs public school districts, and thus taxpayers, hundreds of thousands of dollars in wasted education funds.
Consider what happened to Milton after leaving his failed stint in Flint.
Serial Grifting or Tough Job?
In 2007, after leaving Flint, Milton got a job paying $220,000 annually, as superintendent of schools in Springfield, Illinois (the median average salary of school teachers in Illinois is $60,749). It didn’t take long for contentious issues to emerge.
A local newspaper spotlighted an analysis showing widening gaps in student achievement of the district’s black students compared to their white peers. Milton dismissed the findings, but reporters provided a forum for others to contest his dismissal. The same news outlet also gave voice to those who were increasingly dismayed at Milton’s many ongoing job searches and his side gig running a consulting business, From the Heart International Management Company. While he was serving as full-time superintendent, his company had “a $32,000 contract with the Youngstown, Ohio, school district” and a “$90,000... [contract with] an elementary school and two high schools in the Pulaski district” in Arkansas.
But Milton already had his eyes on the next move. In 2011, while he was still employed in Springfield, Milton turned up in a search conducted by a firm looking for a new superintendent in Little Rock, Arkansas, the district next to where he consulted in the state. The search firm was McPherson and Jacobson, based in Omaha, Nebraska.
A local news outlet reported Milton as one of the top two finalists without any mention of his problematic tenures in Fallsburg or Flint. Also unclear was whether or not he had corrected false academic information on his resume. His consideration for the position ended only when he took himself out of the running because he decided to stay in Springfield.
But patience among Springfield board members was wearing thin, and in 2013, all of them but one signed a separation agreement ending Milton’s contract 15 months before it was to expire. A stipulation in the agreement prevented board members from explaining why they wanted him gone, but they gave him a severance package worth $177,797, according to local news outlet the State Journal-Register. On Illinois public radio, Molly Beck, then an education reporter for the State Journal-Register, calculated the total cost of replacing Milton and hiring a new superintendent likely exceeded $435,000. (Milton eventually sued the district over the circumstances of his ouster and lost in the state’s supreme court.)
The same year Milton was negotiating his way out of his position in Springfield, his name appeared on a short list of finalists for superintendent of schools in Madison, Wisconsin. This time, the recruitment firm recommending him was Ray and Associates, based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which was being paid $31,000 for the search.
But this time, local television station Channel 3000 astutely reported the search firm hired by the district “didn’t report” about Milton’s “controversial history” in its background investigation summary.
“Documents show,” Channel 3000 asserted, “Ray and Associates didn’t raise any questions about these reported incidents in Milton’s past.”
Seeing that his fortunes in Madison might be fading, Milton withdrew his application. But the very same month he withdrew his application from Madison, he appeared on the list of three “very high quality candidates” chosen, again, for Little Rock. The district had continued to work with McPherson and Jacobson, which was being paid $21,500 plus expenses for its work.
Just as in 2011, the firm failed to advise the board of Milton’s troubling track record. But this time, board members did their own background research and questioned why the firm had included Milton.
One board member scolded the representative from McPherson and Jacobson, saying, “the only vetting done was asking Dr. Milton for his explanation instead of independent verification.” One of Milton’s explanations was that the same person convicted of child molestation he had hired at Fallsburg and Flint had since been acquitted of the charge. But a local reporter pointed out that the alleged offender had more recently been jailed on charges of sexual battery in 2008.
Concerned citizens launched an online petition campaign demanding Milton be removed from consideration, and pushback to his hiring emerged on social media. Within weeks, Milton withdrew his application.
How Big Is the Problem?
It’s tempting to dismiss Milton’s career as an aberration in a system that for the most part may work fine.
Across the country there are approximately 13,500 district superintendents, corresponding to the number of school districts. According to a 2006 study by AASA, a school superintendent group located in the Washington, D.C., metro area, 14-16 percent of these positions turn over every year. (AASA’s executive director declined a request for an interview with Our Schools.)
School boards do not have to hire private consulting groups to assist them with their hiring process. But private search firms increasingly play the role of “power brokers” in the public school leadership pipeline, and a seasoned observer of the job market has remarked about the “proliferation” of these firms over the past two decades.
There are unknown numbers of these firms—a 2009 study of superintendent search consultants conducted just in Texas identified 108. But according to AASA’s 2015 estimation, the industry is dominated by a big three:
- HYA, which handles from 80 to 90 executive searches per year,
- McPherson and Jacobson, which handles 45 to 55 national and regional searches per year, and
- Ray and Associates, which handles up to 50 searches a year.
That’s a relatively small number of searches in a professional field with such high turnover. But given the untold numbers of these firms operating across the country, the lack of recent detailed analyses of the industry, and the low-level interest of this subject in national media outlets, stories about these prominent search firms in local news outlets may indicate a widespread problem.
Rather than dismissing Milton as just one bad apple, consider what happened in Little Rock after he flamed out there.
More Recommendations Gone Awry
After Milton removed himself from consideration, the school board, still relying on advice from McPherson and Jacobson, chose Dexter Suggs at a salary of $200,000 (median average salary for school teachers in Arkansas is $48,512). But not long into his tenure, a local blogger found that within the dissertation Suggs had written to earn his PhD, a requirement for the position, there was “a whole lot of nearly verbatim copying of someone else’s dissertation without attribution”; it appeared to the blogger that there were “three sources” from which Suggs had copied “whole passages... and didn’t attribute to them at all.”
Suggs also ran into trouble when he threatened to investigate and fire teachers for vague violations of “policies” and when he made capricious decisions to end school programs.
The ensuing furor ended in Suggs’s resignation during the second year of his three-year contract. His contract settlement of potentially $248,208.50 was eventually reduced by $100,100 due to a contractual agreement that payments under the agreement would be reduced only if the university that had awarded him the PhD revoked the degree—which it ultimately did.
But McPherson and Jacobson was not the only recruitment firm that overlooked problems in Suggs’s resume.
Two years before Suggs was vetted for the Little Rock job, his name was high on the list of finalists for superintendent of the Tuscaloosa City School System in Alabama. He wasn’t chosen for the job, but there’s no mention in local news outlets of any controversy over his qualifications, and it’s doubtful that issue came up given the way it was revealed in Little Rock. The search firm that recommended Suggs to the Tuscaloosa board was Ray and Associates.
McPherson and Jacobson also “didn’t do enough investigating,” according to a local media outlet, when vetting candidates for the superintendent of schools in New London, Connecticut. The firm recommended Terrence P. Carter, but local reporters found that he’d been calling himself Dr. but had a PhD from a “diploma mill.” A local newspaper also reported that Carter submitted a job application with “At least 10 paragraphs in the two-page essay… apparently copied from other sources without attribution.”
Hundreds of Thousands for What?
All three leading superintendent search firms have frequently made highly questionable recommendations to their clients. Of the big three, HYA has probably been subjected to the most scrutiny by local news organizations.
The earliest examination of HYA’s troubling track record Our Schools could find was in 1999 by a reporter for the Sun Sentinel, a South Florida newspaper covering primarily Broward County. The reporter questioned HYA’s president at the time, Bill Attea, about a number of “controversial situations.”
Among them were HYA’s top superintendent candidate for Montgomery County, Maryland, who “had filed for bankruptcy twice”; a finalist for a district in Pennsylvania who had resigned from a previous position in South Carolina after being accused of “bid rigging” and nepotism; and a finalist for the top job in Dallas, Texas, Anthony Trujillo, who had just been fired from his previous position as superintendent of Ysleta School District in El Paso on the advice of the Texas education agency.
The Dallas example is especially noteworthy because Trujillo had a troubling history from his tenure at his previous position as superintendent in Sweetwater Union High School District, California, where he was also fired. His troubles there stemmed from accusations “involving thousands of dollars worth of missing computer equipment.” His departure from the Texas district was nearly identical, with board members questioning a number of financial decisions, including spending $300,000 on a bus for the athletics program and launching a plan to spend $50 million on computers.
He left Ysleta with an agreement that included $116,000 and “an early retirement plan and continued medical benefits for both Trujillo and his wife.”
A far lengthier account of HYA’s many “mishandled” superintendent searches appeared in a suburban Chicago newspaper in 2018. The reporter repeated examples from the Sun Sentinel’s piece and added many more, including “controversial superintendent hires” in several Illinois school districts and in Minnesota, Michigan, and Tennessee.
The reporter notes, “Picking a district’s chief executive has consequences for students, educators and taxpayers, who in some of these instances funded the searches, then foot the bill for costly separation agreements when the hires didn’t work out.”
A bungled hiring process HYA conducted in Minneapolis is a prime example of the potential cost to taxpayers. The school board “initially expected to spend about $80,000 when it approved a contract for the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates (HYA)” to find the district’s next superintendent. HYA conducted a search that resulted in the board offering Sergio Paez the job in 2015.
But the board soon rescinded its offer due to “allegations of abuse at a school” by members of his staff in a district he led in Massachusetts. The district was able to cut its payment to HYA in half, but other costs related to the failed search continued to mount. Ultimately the price tag exceeded $200,000 (median salary for school teachers in Minnesota is $61,324).
But the decision to choose Paez, and the money associated with that, could have easily been avoided if board members had been alerted to the skeletons in Paez’s closet. That’s what happened in Trenton, New Jersey, where Paez fell out of consideration for superintendent when local officials objected to “tainted” finalists picked by its consulting firm.
They likely noticed Paez not only had the alleged abuses in his track record but also led a district that was taken over by the state due to “persistent and pervasive problems.” But Trenton officials discovered these problems on their own, not through the search firm—which was HYA.
How the Game’s Played
Why are public school districts hiring these firms?
Retired superintendents, current and former school members, and public school advocates contacted by Our Schools during this investigation explained confidentially that school boards are often advised, either by colleagues or board member support materials and trainings, to hire these firms.
“Search consultants offer a type of assurance to school districts that the recommended candidates have gone through extensive background checks,” a 2012 study of superintendent search behaviors in Texas found. So board members tend to, either wittingly or unwittingly, accept search firm recommendations as highly qualified candidates. (The CEO of the National School Boards Association was not available for an interview.)
In marketing their services, these firms claim to provide clients a “comprehensive” service.
One would think “comprehensive” means a complete and thorough background search to ferret out faked credentials and controversial actions taken in previous positions. But leaders of these firms tend to push back with an argument that resembles a version of buyer beware.
When Our Schools questioned Thomas Jacobson, the CEO of McPherson and Jacobson, about his firm’s conduct of the New London search that resulted in choosing Terrence Carter, he denied his firm was responsible for the hire. “We do not hire superintendents,” he said. “All the [applications] belong to the board,” he wrote in an email. “The board chose to interview him.”
New London seemed to disagree with Jacobson’s logic, given that the district demanded a full refund from the firm.
Ryan Ray, president of Ray and Associates, who assumed leadership of the firm from his father about four years ago, had a similar defense of his company’s recommendation of Walter Milton for the Madison job. “We’ve been in business for 44 years, and we’ve never voted for a superintendent,” he said in a phone call. “That’s the board’s job.”
He described his firm’s work as getting a profile of what board members want in a new leader, and using the profile to “bring [board members] the best of the best” of what’s available from the pool of applicants.
Further, Ray denies withholding information about Milton’s background from the Madison board. Counter to what a local news outlet reported, he claimed his firm “exposed every single thing” about Milton’s past, but the board insisted on interviewing him anyway.
Current HYA president Glenn “Max” McGee said in a phone conversation that after he was hired in December 2017, the organization underwent a makeover of how it conducts background checks and presents recommended candidates to boards.
Associates who conduct the searches have now been instructed to present “slates” of candidates to the board, not individual candidates, and to stay in the background when candidates are being interviewed by board members. “I think some of our associates had gotten too involved and weren’t as objective as they should have been,” he said.
Also, associates are required to conduct 30-60 minute interviews with “viable candidates” and subject each to “an internet search.” Associates receive little to no training in how to conduct these searches but are given an “example” of a recent search HYA conducted for hiring a Denver superintendent.
If clients find that to be insufficient, HYA continues to offer a background service from a third-party company. In its most recent marketing literature, prices given for that service start at $1,100 for “basic” and $1,950 for “comprehensive.”
Critics of these firms also contend a major flaw in the way some do business is their insistence on keeping the process of choosing and vetting candidates strictly confidential until the list is winnowed down to a very small number of finalists or there is only a single “finalist.”
HYA’s McGee said his firm continues to urge confidentiality throughout the process, although his personal preference is to go public only when two or three “finalists” remain. Confidentiality ensures “superintendents don’t get cold feet,” he explained, since candidates might not want their current employers to know about their job search or might not want to be “embarrassed” when they fail to get the job.
Ray insists his firm operates in “complete transparency,” although proposals his firm has submitted to prospective clients include a strict confidentiality clause stating, “The firm will preserve the confidential nature of any information which becomes available to the firm resulting from the services rendered to the Board. As our client, you also need to maintain the confidentiality of information provided by Ray and Associates, Inc.”
Jacobson denied his firm urges confidentiality. “We recommend a very transparent process,” he told Our Schools. “The business of public education should be done in public.”
Yet a proposal the firm sent to prospective clients says:
“Applicant confidentiality is important to attract top candidates. Names remain confidential until the board selects their [sic] finalists.
“…We believe the public business should be done in public with openness and transparency. We also understand the need for applicants’ confidentiality. Our process keeps the names of all applicants confidential until they are named a finalist for the position, at which time the names of the finalists are made public[.]
“If the board believes that the names of the finalists should be kept confidential until they make their [sic] selection, we can do that.”
Sometimes the urge for confidentiality comes from state laws that make applications confidential unless candidates agree to public disclosure. And school boards are often free to call for confidentiality.
But regardless of the origin of the demand for secrecy, it seems inherently anti-democratic and a blatant way to insulate the hiring process from the input of parents and teachers.
The Churn Continues
When asked about his firm’s recommendation to hire Milton in Flint, McGee said, “That was so long ago, and you know, Flint rehired us. I don’t know how that turned out.”
Flint City school board indeed rehired HYA for another superintendent search in 2016, although at least one seasoned board member cautioned against using HYA.
Michigan public radio reported on the rushed nature of the hiring process, with the slate narrowing to two finalists even before the board received background checks. The final hire was Bilal Tawwab, an assistant superintendent from Detroit public schools, one of the most struggling school districts in the nation. Tawwab’s tenure was immediately dominated by the water crisis.
Although Tawwab initially received accolades for hastily shutting off water in the city’s schools when news of lead contamination broke, he drew critical attention some months later when the district, without explanation, wouldn’t allow state inspectors to test for lead in 13 buildings. Lead levels were dangerously high in a number of Flint schools, but school officials still hadn’t presented a plan for school water supplies.
Over two years into Tawwab’s tenure, schools were still testing positive for high levels of lead in their water. Then, with a year still left on his contract, Tawwab suddenly announced he was stepping down. Days after Tawwab made his announcement, news leaked that the district had given him the lowest possible rating on his evaluation and placed him on administrative leave.
Headline: A National Public School ‘Leadership’ Disaster: Private Firms Vetting Candidates for Superintendent
Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.
This article was produced by Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. To learn more about school privatization, check out Who Controls Our Schools? The Privatization of American Public Education, a free ebook published by IMI. Click here to read a selection of Who Controls Our Schools? published on AlterNet.