Fayetteville School Board to vote on superintendent finalist

FAYETTEVILLE -- The School Board is expected to vote today on a finalist for the superintendent position, said Tim Hudson, board president.

Hudson plans for the seven-member board to meet in a brief executive session, a meeting closed to the public, followed by a public vote. The special meeting is set for 5 p.m. in the Adams Leadership Center, 1000 W. Bulldog Blvd.

Superintendent candidates

• Jeff Collum, Benton superintendent

• Kim Garrett, Fayetteville associate superintendent for secondary education

• C.J. Huff, former superintendent of Joplin, Mo., schools

• Matt Wendt, Community Unit District 308 in Oswego, Ill.

Source: Staff report

If the board agrees on one finalist, the board is expected to task Hudson with negotiating a contract that would come back to the board for approval, he said. The contract could be presented to the board for approval as early as the board's regular monthly meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday in the same location.

The board began searching for a superintendent in the fall after Superintendent Paul Hewitt's announcement he plans to retire at the end of the school year. The board received 32 applications.

The board has four choices: Kim Garrett, Fayetteville associate superintendent for secondary education; Jeff Collum, Benton superintendent; Matt Wendt, Community Unit School District 308 in Oswego, Ill.; and C.J. Huff, former superintendent of Joplin, Mo., schools.

The board scheduled six face-to-face interviews with candidates over a two-week period. Jared Cleveland, deputy superintendent for personnel in the Springdale School District, withdrew his application before being interviewed, Hudson said.

Donnie Whitten, superintendent of the Arkadelphia School District, was among those interviewed but also withdrew, he said. Whitten will remain with Arkadelphia, where he has worked for 19 years. Whitten said he had a great visit.

"I wish them the best," Whitten said. "It's just not the right time."

This is the board's third superintendent search since 2009. During the last search to replace Vicki Thomas in the 2013-14 school year, three candidates interviewed withdrew, Hudson said.

Hudson previously discussed plans his time to interview candidates and then name one or more finalists to bring back for interviews with the community prior to making an offer.

With two candidates already withdrawing, Hudson thinks it's in the best interest of the district and the candidate to wrap up the selection process rather than present a finalist, bring the person back for a visit with the community and then start negotiating a contract, he said.

Hudson said he can't guarantee the School Board will settle on one candidate today but thinks that's what will happen.

Hudson still plans for the candidate chosen as superintendent to come back for meetings with the public, district staff and administrators, he said.

"I see my role as keeping as many viable candidates interested in the position as possible and only those we have an interest in," Hudson said. "We don't want to string anyone along."

The next superintendent needs to understand the increasing number of options families have for their children's education, said Jeff Koenig, a member of the Fayetteville Public Education Foundation board and a former board member.

"The School District has to really be on their game," Koenig said. "The parents and the students, they have choices. We have to present a product that comes to the top as the product they prefer."

Koenig said he remembers a politician once saying the board is the toughest job because it affects children and families, and Koenig thinks that sentiment extends to the superintendency. He said he also hopes the board chooses a leader who knows how to work within a budget.

The search drew quality candidates, despite the board not hiring a national search firm, said Ed Bengston, assistant professor at the University of Arkansas who coordinates an educational leadership program that prepares principals and superintendents.

Bengston thought it was concerning for candidates to withdraw, he said.

"Fayetteville historically has had a hard time, when they've courted top candidates, to get them to seal the deal," Bengston said.

The success of a superintendent often depends on the relationship built between the superintendent and board, Bengston said.

"A lot of school systems that are doing fairly well, oftentimes they have a superintendent that has been there for awhile," Bengston said. "If they've been there for awhile, they and the school board have learned to work fairly well together. That is what's going to have to happen with Fayetteville."

NW News on 01/26/2016