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Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School Board Opts for Executive Search Firm with Local Connections

In spite of concerns about insider influence, the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage Board of Education agreed to hire School Exec Connect, a company with extensive ties to the Twin Cities.

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The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage Board of Education unanimously selected School Exec Connect as its headhunter of choice on Thursday night, with some reservations.

School Exec Connect will be tasked with finding a replacement for outgoing Superintendent Randy Clegg, who announced his retirement in September after receiving a mixed performance review. Though the board was "violently in agreement" as Board Member Bob VandenBoom quipped, there were some lingering concerns about the company's closeness to the Minnesota education scene and its track record.

School Exec Connect is nine-year-old company based out of Highland Park, Ill. The firm has worked primarily in the midwest and east, including neighboring school districts like Shakopee and Lakeville. It claims 95 percent success rate. 

Chosen Firm Will Cost Over $20,000

Of the three search firms included, School Exec Connect had the highest base price, at $19,500. The proposal also included up to $2,750 in additional expenses and another $2,000 to $4,000 for job advertisements. A criminal background check for the finalists was not initially included in the package, and would be administered at an extra charge. The total package would likely cost from $24,250 to $26,250.

By comparison, ProAct offered a base fee of $18,000, with $2,000 to $4,000 more for travel costs, and $1,500 to $5,000 for marketing and advertising. Added together, ProAct's plan would cost $21,500 to $27,000. Ray and Associates put in an offer for $17,000 in base pay, but left other costs such as consultant expenses and candidate travel costs open ended. The proposal merely states that such add-ons will be "kept to a minimum." 

The three contenders offered similar services—web surveys and focus groups with community members, an aggressive, proactive approach to finding candidates and an extensive investigation into each candidate's background (both through references and off-the-record, insider sources). ProAct also offered to put each candidate through a personality test, the Hogan Personality Assessment.

ProAct and Ray each offered a two-year warranty on their services, meaning if the match didn't work out they would go through the search and selection process again at no extra cost to the district. School Exec Connect offered a one-year warranty, but agreed to match their competitors' offer to seal the deal.

Board Concerned With Nepotism 

Various board members asked pointed questions about a controversy in Duluth involving School Exec Connect and Dr. I.V. Foster, who resigned a few months into the job after failing to get appropriate licensure. The firm failed to note this experience on its website or in materials provided to ISD 191. 

"He did not have to resign. He chose to resign," said presenter Dr. Kenneth Dragseth. "He was an African American candidate from Illinois and he decided to go back. That's about as honest as we can possibly be."

Though the board found this answer largely unsatisfying, they were more concerned by School Exec Connect's entrenchment in the Minnesota school scene. 

"The (Minnesota educational system) is a little inbred, putting it bluntly," said Board Member Dan Luth, who confessed to being personally acquainted with School Exec Connect's presenters.

The consultants who will be leading the search are all retired superintendents from the Twin Cities area. Dr. Kenneth Dragseth, a partner in School Exec Connect, led the Edina school district until his retirement in 2006. Dr. Antoinette Johns, also a partner, retired from her position as superintendent of Brooklyn Center Public Schools in 2005. They will be assisted in the search by Dr. Charles Kyte (formerly of Northfield schools) and Robert Ostlund (past superintendent of both Wayzata and the Shakopee School Districts). 

All have been deeply involved in the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. All four have been honored as Regional Administrators of Excellence by the organization. Three of the four have been president of the organization's board, and Kyte was its executive director from 2000 to late 2011. Johns and Kyte are current trustees of the MASA Foundation, which has a stated purpose of "growing our own" supply of educational leaders. 

In addition, each consultant has long-standing ties with the University of Minnesota. All went to the graduate school for educational administration at the university. Ostlund was even a finalist for the university's Board of Regents in 2011.

Such a close-knit network was a concern for both Luth and VandenBoom.

"My primary reason they weren't my number one choice is because they are very Minnesota exclusive. I'm not saying (that the new superintendent) can't be found in Minnesota, but I'd like to know that we're going beyond our own borders," Luth said. "And I'm not convinced that they will. On ther other hand, with both the other ones I'm not convinced that they can deliver inside Minnesota."

Both Ray and ProAct had only a handful of previous clients in Minnesota. ProAct in particular made a point of stressing its ability to draw new talent from all over the country.

"A lot of old, white superintendents run the field (of search firm consulting). When we entered four years ago, we made a concerted effort to dig deeper into the pool," said ProAct presenter Steve Kupfer, who communicated with the board via Skype. "We really focus on second- and third-tier leadership has gone overlooked for the last 20 years. We don't represent a stable of superintendents…we bring unexplored talent to the surface."

Board Member DeeDee Currier argued that local talent may be more affordable for the cash-strapped district, which has endured largely stagnant revenue levels and growing costs for the better part of a decade.

"I don't know if we can afford someone from Portland, Oregon or even someone from Portland, Maine," Currier said.

Board Member Jim Schmid noted that if they felt strongly about searching outside the North Star state, they could stipulate as much in the contract with School Exec Connect. In the end, the board found Dragseth and Johns' pitch and local star-power to be more compelling than the competition.

"They are an all-star lineup. And I know they will work their tails off for us," Luth said. 

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