Vilonia School District hires consultants in search for new superintendent

By Tammy Keith Published November 28, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Nick Hillemann

Frank Mitchell, left, superintendent of the Vilonia School District, talks to Ken Redding last week during lunch at the Vilonia Senior Citizens Center. Mitchell, who will retire after this school year, and other educators were servers at the lunch. Having a superintendent who is “highly active and visible in the community” is one of five criteria board members have listed for Mitchell’s replacement.

VILONIA — A consultant helping the Vilonia School District search for its next superintendent said the company can save board members time, money and, possibly, regret.

Rose Bud native Bobby Lester and Bald Knob Superintendent Kieth Williams work for a Nebraska firm that has been hired for $10,000 by the Vilonia district to find a replacement for longtime superintendent Frank Mitchell, who will retire in June after 28 years on the job.

“A lot of these guys and gals are hiring people, and six months to a year later, finding out they’ve made a mistake,” Lester said.

He used the example of a superintendent in south Arkansas charged with driving while intoxicated. The board had been unaware of a previous DWI arrest the man had.

Lester and Williams conduct executive searches as consultants for McPherson & Jacobson of Omaha, Neb.

The consulting firm has a collaborative relationship with the Arkansas School Boards Association, Lester said.

“Some of the school boards here in Arkansas — they’re busy people; they’re doctors and lawyers and farmers, and they don’t have time to do the background checks and research that they ought to,” Lester said.

Vilonia School Board President Jerry Roberts said he thinks the consultants will be worth the money.

“We’ll do a lot of stuff trying to get the right coach,” Roberts said. He said the superintendent’s position is too important not to get it right.

“They make one mistake; it can cost you $100,000,” Roberts said, whether it’s not getting a grant or making a mistake in a building project.

“It takes a lot of the politics out of it,” Roberts said.

Lester said four focus groups were formed in Vilonia: high school students; classified employees, which include bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians; teachers; and administrators.

He said the consultants ask the focus groups to tell them the good and bad about the city and the school.

“A lot of things about Vilonia, I don’t know, even though I grew up in Rose Bud,” Lester said.

Lester, who lives in Jacksonville, said a clear picture has emerged of the kind of person residents and school board members are looking for in a leader for the district.

The school board has provided its top-five criteria. No. 1 is someone who has central office experience, understands school finance and has experience in budgeting.

A public meeting held earlier this month had a turnout of about 65 people, Lester said.

The school board was not invited, Roberts said, so people could speak more freely.

“People really did engage in the conversation,” Lester said.

“They are really interested in getting someone very conservative in dealing with business budgets and finance,” he said. “They have to squeeze their dollars at Vilonia to be competitive in every area.”

Lester said Mitchell has been successful in handling finances and enabling the district to build new facilities.

“They want someone visible in the community, someone easy to approach … who comes to the ballgames, comes to the PTA meetings,” Lester said. “They want everybody to know that superintendent when they see them at the post office.”

“They want someone who is religiously conservative like you find in the South, and we can’t ask that. They want someone who has a religious affiliation. That’s what the public said to us. We told the public, “We can’t ask these kinds of questions, but we know what you’re talking about.’”

Vilonia Mayor James Firestone, who was on the school board when Mitchell was hired in 1986, attended the public meeting.

“I think one of the main points I gathered — and several people addressed this — they were interested in a Christian man because we’re big on celebrating Christmas, and that’s what we want to continue to do, and we don’t want that taken out of the school,” Firestone said.

He said finding Mitchell’s replacement won’t be easy.

“He’s done so much. It’s going to be hard to fill his shoes,” Firestone said. “He’s supported the community; he’s brought the community together. That school’s come a long way since he came here. He’s a community-oriented person and got out in the community and got to know people.

“It’s hard for the community to trust new people. People feel comfortable with Doc. They trust Doc, and he earned that.”

Firestone recalled how Mitchell jumped right in when he was hired 28 years ago.

“I remember seeing him with his bluejeans and his Weedeater on Saturday morning at the school, and he didn’t have to do that,” Firestone said. “He took pride in the school.”

Lester said patrons also mentioned that they want a superintendent “who puts kids first, stays on the cutting edge and has a vision.”

Mitchell said he has stayed out of the process, but he supports the use of the consultants.

“Boards have a difficult time sometimes getting the information. … That’s just not what they do,” Mitchell said.

“I’ve seen a lot of places that boards hire superintendents, and it’s kind of amazing the people that they hire.”

Mitchell said he has a daughter who works in the Vilonia School District, as well as a granddaughter and stepgrandson who attend school in the district..

“I hope it gets better,” he said.

Lester said that because of Vilonia’s good reputation and the town’s proximity to Conway and Little Rock, he expects good applicants.

Advertisements will be placed in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Lester said, as well as on the American Association of School Administrators website and the consulting firm’s website.

Vilonia Assistant Superintendent Cathy Riggins, who said she is not applying for the position, is the point of contact.

Lester said that after all the applications are in, employees in the Omaha office “check all the credentials, transcripts; then we consultants get the applications.”

Lester said he and Williams will thoroughly research the applicants.

“Most of the time, the person who gets the job is not looking for a job,” Lester said.

Lester said he calls the candidates’ references but asks each reference for another name.

When it’s all said and done, Lester said, instead of just three references, he’s talked to nine people.

The conversations are confidential, Lester said.

“We ask them 15 to 20 questions we have written down that come from criteria,” he said.

One question is, “Is there anything in this person’s background that if it became public would be an embarrassment to the school board?”

Lester said he also tries to contact every school district in which the applicant has previously worked.

“Sometimes they will commit a minor illegal act, or immoral act, … and the board says, ‘Get out of here and don’t sue us, and we’ll forget about it.’”

The Vilonia School Board will be given three to five applicants to interview.

Lester said the board will have all the applications, however, and can interview anyone it wants.

“We work for the school board,” he said.

Those recommended candidates, and their spouses, will be invited to Vilonia.

“The spouse can be a liability or asset, just like hiring a new pastor,” Lester said.

He said the focus groups will also meet the candidates.

“We make it clear it’s not their job to hire the superintendent. … The board appreciates their response, but we don’t want them ranking the candidates, and we don’t want them calling the board members and pressuring them,” Lester said.

Riggins said she looks forward to working with whomever the board chooses.

“I think our board is very committed to finding someone that fits the culture of our community, that has the values, and they want someone who is going to continue to lead us forward,” she said.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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