Mark Rollefson

Mark Rollefson

JEFFERSON — The School District of Jefferson will be enlisting the expertise of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards to help with the search to find a replacement for retiring superintendent Mark Rollefson.

Rollefson has announced he will retire as superintendent effective at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

At Monday evening's school board meeting, the board approved a contract with WASB and its search services consultant, Francis Finco, to help administer a national search for Rollefson's successor.

The service comes at a not-to-exceed price of $8,500, with the cost breakdown determined by the number of hours and services the consultant ends up investing in the process.

The WASB has been offering this service for more than three decades and has completed 375 searches for districts of varying size, seeking to meet the specific needs of each district.

The superintendent search is projected to take around three months, with a new hire expected around mid-April.

Asked how many qualified candidates this type of search usually generates, Finco said that some districts see as many as 25 qualified applicants for this type of administrative position, while others see as few as 10. Most fall somewhere in between.

Most of the candidates who respond to such a search come from Wisconsin, but some are from the surrounding states or beyond, he noted.

Asked how Jefferson is likely to fare in this process, given the district's size and location, Finco said the local school district should draw a number of good candidates.

"I'm not blowing smoke here, but people are going to want to come to Jefferson," the consultant said. "Your district is a great (intermediate) size. You have a good location. Your budget is solid. You have a solid board, and your board and superintendent have a good relationship. Students are challenged ... You have success written all over you." 

The national search process begins with the consultant meeting the school board to answer questions, with the timeline and contact itself tailored to the board's determinations as to its priorities.

Finco, a retired superintendent from Onalaska, met with the Jefferson school board virtually Monday to introduce the process.

Per WASB policy during this time of pandemic, all further meetings also would be conducted virtually.

After that introductory meeting, the first step in the superintendent search process usually involves focus groups of staff members, community members and even potentially students to help the school board create a profile of what it is looking for most in a superintendent.

The WASB will handle the compilation of applications, and will assist in setting and overseeing the first round of interviews, which likely would be spaced over two evenings.

Around six semifinalists would be expected to go through this initial round of interviews with Finco and the school board.

The top candidates from that round, possibly up to three finalists, then would advance to a second round of interviews.

If there are any internal candidates for the position (from within the Jefferson district) the school board can determine whether they want those candidates to advance directly to the finalist stage or to go through the entire process along with other candidates.

"You are looking for the absolute best match for the district," Finco said.

The WASB then would handle the background checks — extensive educational checks, criminal checks and financial checks — on the finalists. These background checks go well beyond what's possible by a private citizen doing a Google search, Finco said.

During the initial round of interviews, he said, the Jefferson administrative team would ask the same questions of every candidate, while the second round of interviews would allow board members to ask targeted questions of specific candidates based on what they most want to know.

Before the pandemic, the final, third round of interviews would have been done in an open meeting with members of the public present, including the opportunity for members of the public to ask questions of the candidates directly.

In the COVID-19 era, however, public gatherings such as this are not possible, Finco said.

Instead, the final interview session with the finalists would be broadcast on Facebook Live or YouTube Live, and would feature questions from Finco, including some that had been submitted by members of the school staff or community.

This final interview session would be recorded live and (re)broadcast the next day via a link on the school district's website.

As school board members prepare to make a final decision, they will be asked to consider the strengths of each candidate, any areas of concern, and whether they would recommend a particular candidate.

Members of the public also will be invited to weigh in on these same questions so the board can gauge community opinion, but the board would not be obliged to base its decision on public sentiment.

By around 3 p.m. the day after the final interviews, the online survey tool would be shut down and the information would be synthesized prior to a meeting the following evening.

The idea is to return to the debate with a fresh mind, rather than being forced to make a decision after a long meeting at, say, 10:30 p.m.

School board member Dick Lovett said that in the past, the Jefferson district has done district walk-throughs with top superintendent candidates, offering the opportunity for the candidates to get to know the district better while local officials get a chance to interact in a more informal manner.

"Once we hire the person, they're not going to be acting in a structured role," Lovett said, noting that the superintendent will be dealing with interactions and issues as they arise organically.

A walk-through or a drive-through is a possibility, Finco said. Some districts have invited both the candidate and their spouses, he noted.

Meanwhile, as the interviews are going on, the WASB will work with the school board to develop a contract for the new superintendent, so that it's ready to go when the board makes a decision on who they want to hire and can offer the job immediately.

The field is very competitive right now, Finco noted, with lots of candidates and lots of openings.

Having a contract ready to go could assist in snagging a good candidate rather than seeing them depart for another district.

Once the decision is made, WASB is prepared to assist with contract negotiations, and with crafting a press release to announce the new superintendent to the community.

Additionally, the WASB rep can meet with the board and the new superintendent for goal-setting if district planners desire.

As the Jefferson school board considered the WASB contract Monday evening, Rollefson noted that WASB offers the only superintendent search service in Wisconsin. Several firms in Northern Illinois offered the same service, but they are for-profit firms and the cost would be much greater.

Rollefson stressed that the Wisconsin Association of School Boards is a reputable, local and well-known resource with which the Jefferson district has worked many times before.

"They're in our backyard," Rollefson said. "They are very involved. I think they've got skin in the game. Our success is their success."

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