Education First Shawnee Mission, school board candidates chime in on hiring of Ray and Associates to lead superintendent search


The Shawnee Mission Board of Education on Saturday voted 5-0 (members Deb Zila and Cindy Neighbor were not present for the vote) to rehire Ray and Associates four years after that firm led the search that culminated with the hiring of Jim Hinson. Given the tumultuous end to Hinson’s tenure in Shawnee Mission, that decision prompted some raised eyebrows among many patrons.

But some of the candidates running for the board who said they were dead set against Ray and Associates heading into Saturday’s presentations apparently reached the same conclusion as the board — that despite the questionable outcome of the last search process, Ray and Associates appeared to have the bandwidth and understanding to best lead a new search.

Two other firms that had responded to the district’s request for proposal on a superintendent search process — HYA and School Exec Connect — were selected as finalists along with Ray and Associates to make presentations to the board on Saturday. Many observers came away with the conclusion that the other two finalists were not sufficiently staffed at present and didn’t seem to have as solid a grasp on the changing demographics of the area. School Exec Connect, which appeared to be best positioned to challenge Ray and Associates for the contract, gave a presentation that had errors in it, raising concerns among some members of the board.

At-large candidate Heather Ousley, however, said after the meeting that hiring Ray and Associates again was not the right move.

“It is my opinion that additional information available regarding our former superintendent was discoverable, and that the failure to disclose this information was more problematic than the typos in SEC’s presentation,” she said, suggesting that the board should have considered extending the search process and looking to interview other firms.

Some of the school board candidates posted notices on social media with their takeaways from Saturday’s meeting. We also asked Education First Shawnee Mission for their thoughts on the hiring. Below are those statements.

Tiffany Johnson, Education First Shawnee Mission

What is most important at this critical juncture is for our district to stay engaged in the process. The best way to ensure the right superintendent is hired is for SMSD parents, teachers, and patrons to provide input at ALL possible opportunities. We are eager to see candidates that believe in transparency, promote a positive working culture, are mindful of our district’s diversity, support SPED, and reject school privatization efforts.

Mandi Hunter, at-large candidate

As I expressed publicly to those in attendance at the interviews, I wanted to like School Exec Connect. Prior to Saturday, I was set in the idea of a new firm with a fresh perspective as being the best choice for the district. However, their presentation was lacking in several aspects. Ray and Associates, on the other hand, had the most professional presentation and exhibited a depth of personnel and experience as well as a track-record of obtaining diverse candidates. Furthermore, they have made several changes in recent years including the involvement of Rep. Brenda Dietrich, who was a teacher and retired last year after 14 years as Superintendent of the Auburn-Washburn school district and who played a critical role in developing the new school finance formula. Since this was the same firm that brought Dr. Hinson to the district, there is an inherent hesitation however, out of the three presentations on Saturday, Ray and Associates provided the best interview.

Heather Ousley, at-large candidate

On Saturday, the SMSD Board heard from the three firms the Board invited to formally present on the process they would use to vet candidates for the Board to select the next Superintendent. Of the three firms, School Exec Connect and Ray & Associates were the two top contenders. Ray & Associates brought an excellent presentation; however, this was the firm that helped select Dr. Hinson. School Exec Connect was a smaller firm, and their presentation was not as polished as Ray & Associates. The Board appeared split somewhat between the two firms, with some preferring the “fresh eyes” of SEC, while others spoke of R&A’s experience to conduct a national search with greater resources (although the national reach was perhaps not as utilized during our last search, as Hinson was hired out of Independence, MO).

Craig Denny offered those in attendance the opportunity to provide their input.

Those in attendance, including my opponent, spoke in favor of R&A, due to their experience and abilities, and against SEC, as SEC’s presentation, it was noted, had typos. Additionally, many of those in attendance felt that R&A fielded concerns regarding their abilities to provide a diverse candidate pool in a manner superior to the other firms.

While SEC was a smaller firm from outside the area, the two gentleman presenting were associated with the SM area. One graduated from SM North and received his Master’s in Education from KU and his Doctorate in Education from St. Louis University, the other was a former Blue Valley Superintendent. They both noted that SEC was looking to expand their reach, and hoped the opportunity with SMSD would allow them to do so. It is my opinion, that due to their desire to use this opportunity to expand the reach of their firm, their group would have a vested interest in making sure that SMSD was entirely satisfied with their performance, as any deficiency would sink their opportunity to expand.

With regards to the concerns associated with providing a diverse applicant pool, R&A’s presentation specifically addressed diversity components. SEC, however, upon questioning, did immediately respond that the applicant pool would need to be diverse to ensure an appropriate candidate was picked, and SEC offered as evidence recent diverse candidate pools they provided to other Districts they have worked with. For reference, see University City.

I spoke in favor of School Exec Connect, as after knocking hundreds of doors, the consistent message I have received from members of our community has been that the last search process was deficient. I said that our community is gun shy of implementing the same process, and there is a significant lack of trust right now.

The Board members present (5 of 7) voted unanimously to select R&A.

In addition to our District’s previous experience with R&A and the selection of Hinson, a quick google search of R&A reveals the following from the last four years (there are additional articles not included from prior to the selection of Superintendent Hinson):

Search firm knew of St. Paul superintendent candidate’s bankruptcy” June 1, 2017, R&A failed to inform board about superintendent finalist’s past bankruptcy.

School Committee dissatisfied with search firm” January 28, 2016, R&A provided semi-finalist who did not have the proper qualifications to become a superintendent.

Madison superintendent consultant defends search process” March 15, 2013, R&A failed to fully inform School Board of candidate’s controversial background issues.

I think it would have been fruitful to explore the possibility of interviewing additional firms, if the typos in SEC’s presentation disqualified them from the selection process. It is my opinion that additional information available regarding our former superintendent was discoverable, and that the failure to disclose this information was more problematic than the typos in SEC’s presentation.

While it was and is ultimately a Board decision on who to hire, the pool of candidates presented to a Board shapes the conversation and the options. While it is important for the Board to work together, it is also important to note when greater opportunities may be found via other avenues.

I will continue to work to advocate for the very best for our SMSD and our students, and I request that the community continue to engage the District throughout the selection process. Too much is at stake to do anything less.

Laura Guy, SM West area candidate

I was one of the candidates who was there for the entire morning of presentations. If people want to know why I spoke in support of hiring Ray and Assoc, here is what I posted on my Facebook page Laura Guy for SMSD: “I spent a long morning listening to all three search firm presentations. The one firm I was determined to dismiss was Ray and Associates since they had led the search that ended in the hiring of Dr. Hinson. However, of the three firms, they were the most intentional about identifying and recruiting diverse candidates. [Their presentation team included the only woman and also included a bi-lingual man who came to America as a Cuban refugee.] I believe that having a diverse pool of candidates is going to give us the best chance to find the right person to be our next superintendent. Therefore, I reluctantly changed my mind about them and favored them. Dr. Denny asked the observers for our thoughts, and that’s what I said. Some others expressed hesitations since R&A missed some things about Dr. Hinson. But most agreed that R&A could get the best candidates. I am obviously following this closely and will continue to attend all the public meetings I can.”

Mary Sinclair, SM East area candidate

I joined several SMSD parents and patrons at the school board meeting [Saturday]. We heard 3 presentations from superintendent search firms. The board’s public discussion of the proposals was enlightening and included an invitation to those in the audience to share our preferences. In attendance, included parents from SMAC PTA, Education 1st, SME Diversity & Inclusion Cmte, SMSD Watchdogs as well as most of the board candidates and the Shawnee Mission Post.

It was my impression that all three firms are reputable, led by distinguished superintendents. The real task today was identifying the best fit. Two of the firms stood out – R&A and School Exec Connect, with concerns over the other firm’s approach to fielding a diverse pool of candidates.

Several board members and those in attendance were looking to the MN firm School Exec for a fresh perspective. Typos and errors in their presentation materials raised concerns about their attention to detail, as well as, depth of team members. The MN firm is looking to expand their services to surrounding states, but were a little unclear about sufficient number of staff to provide the scope of search services (e.g., gather broad-based community input, compile and synthesize data for public consumption, conduct background checks and such). Nor were they aware that SMSD has already hired an interim supt.

R&A provided the most comprehensive description of strategies and resources to field a diverse pool of candidates, to gather and exchange information with board members and SMSD community. They were the only group of presenters comprised of diverse team members and were most knowledgeable of our district. R&As insights into SMSD is also their weakness. This is the firm that fielded Dr Hinson.

The more relevant question for me [Saturday] quickly became whether the onus is on R&A or on the board for passing over other finalists and yielding much of their authority to the former supt. Given the options and circumstances to date, I share the inclination of the parents in the room to go w/R&A – with the expectation for improvement upon past experiences. School Exec just didn’t demonstrate sufficient capacity yet for a large out-state client like SMSD.