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Time is the great debate in superintendent search

Their ambitious travel plan to visit the communities of two superintendent finalists makes it seem that Clark County School Board members Deanna Wright and Linda Young are training for “The Amazing Race.”

The two fly to Texas on Sunday night to screen Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. They depart for Denver Monday night to meet with Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones. Wright and Young then return to Las Vegas late Tuesday for a Wednesday board meeting to select the next leader of the nation’s fifth-largest district.

Young has unsuccessfully urged the board to slow the process down. It’s a suggestion that’s also been voiced by others in the community, including longtime political consultant Sig Rogich, who assisted the district in a previous superintendent search. Rogich, chairman of the board for the Public Education Foundation, said earlier that he sees no reason for a snap decision.

Young worries about “haste making waste.”

“This is too important a process to even begin to feel rushed,” she said Thursday. “I would agree we need more time to see what our constituents and others are saying.”

Other School Board members are anxious that candidates may drop out if the process is prolonged. And board members Larry Mason, Sheila Moulton and Carolyn Edwards believe that the two current finalists are “exceptional.”

“We got two superstars,” Mason said. “There’s no way we can lose.”

On Thursday, board members were divided about the need to perform site visits to check out Hinojosa and Jones. Moulton said she appreciated the educational benefit of travel but said technology has made candidate information easy to obtain, more so than it was five years ago during the district’s last superintendent search.

Young said traveling to the candidates’ hometowns is necessary to making an informed decision.

Wright added, “We’re walking a fine line of having enough time to do our research but also making our decision in a timely fashion.”

Outside pressures are coming to bear on the district’s campaign to find a replacement for retiring Superintendent Walt Rulffes. The Dallas School Board on Thursday voted 5-4 to extend Hinojosa’s contract until 2015 but did not raise his salary. Hinojosa has told The Dallas Morning News that the extension would make his decision harder. He also told the paper that he saw nothing in Clark County “to scare him away.”

Hinojosa did not return calls for comment Friday.

Both finalists met with Clark County staffers and stakeholders during interviews this week. One district administrator who spoke with both men believes Hinojosa is the better choice because of his experience in running a large school district. Dallas has about 160,00 students and is the nation’s 14th-largest system.

The same administrator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Jones’ responses to questions about district operations were broad while Hinojosa was precise and detailed. Jones “was out of his league,” the administrator said.

Other district insiders speculate that Jones has the advantage. He made a favorable impression as a leader and a good listener, they said.

Jones said he likes to think of himself as responsible for Colorado’s 800,000 K-12 students, but he is not in charge of a school district. Before he became the education commissioner, Jones oversaw a suburban Colorado school system, the Fountain-Fort Carson School District, with 6,000 students.

Ken Small, a Clark County School Board candidate for District F, said he was not satisfied with either finalist.

“It’s obvious that Hinojosa is well-suited to Dallas,” Small said. “They want to keep him. The other gentleman seems competent in the role that he has, which is not the equivalent of a school superintendent for a district this size.”

Three of seven board seats will be decided in the November elections. Moulton and Mason were prevented by term limits from seeking re-election.

Clark County is offering an annual superintendent’s salary of $270,000. Hinojosa earns $328,000 a year, but if he makes the move, he could draw his Texas pension, estimated at $200,000. Jones earns $223,860 for managing the Colorado Department of Education.

“They’re in charge of hiring the most important person in the school district,” Small said of School Board members. “They should have had the (search firm) bring them more candidates.”

The board’s Nebraska-based search firm of McPherson & Jacobson originally identified three finalists. James Browder, superintendent of Florida’s Lee County School District, dropped out to take a job with Edison State College, also in Florida.

If the board does not make a decision Wednesday, it could ask the firm for three more finalists.

Wright and School Board candidate James Brooks, who is running against Erin Cranor to replace Moulton in District G, disputed the criticism that the current board is rushing to pick a superintendent before the November elections change the board’s membership.

“Originally I thought it was a power play, but the district does need a superintendent,” Brooks said. “I like to think they’re trying to get a guy in there before the 2011 Legislature.”

Wright said the district is like a business.

“In every business, you have to keep the business cycle moving,” she said. “We started this process back in April so it’s not as if we’re just starting now. We’re just moving along because you can’t stop functioning.”

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7917.

 

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