In the coming months, the Eugene School District 4J Board of Directors will make one of the most important decisions impacting the entire district: Hiring a superintendent and deciding whether to hire internally or conduct a national search. Though discussions have just started, the board has already experienced some tension.
After some initial misunderstandings during a June 4 board meeting, members voted during the meeting to hold a public work session involving current board members and new board members who will be sworn in on July 1, to discuss how to proceed with hiring a superintendent.
Board members have several options. They can choose to hire the current interim superintendent, Cydney Vandercar, who says she is applying and has worked as a teacher and then an administrator with the district for more than 30 years. Vandercar recently received glowing reviews from the school board. The board can also conduct a national search, a procedure often used to hire superintendents that is time-consuming and costly.
During the June 4 meeting, current board member Anne Marie Levis proposed a separate work session to discuss the district’s process of superintendent selection. Levis was shocked, she says, when she was immediately met with backlash from board member Gordon Lafer, who voiced concerns about transparency and accused Levis of planning a private meeting.
“I was just trying to say let’s have a meeting about this,” Levis tells Eugene Weekly, adding that she intended it to be a public work session. “So that we are being good stewards of public money because a superintendent search not only costs a lot, but it takes a ton of time.”
Levis says she wanted to hold the public meeting before she was off the board because of her experience in hiring past superintendents, including previous superintendent Gustavo Balderas, who was the first Latino to win national superintendent of the year while leading 4J. Alicia Hayes and Mary Walston are the only other board members who were present for the hiring of the previous three superintendents.
“My motive was to say all these things in public,” Levis says.
“I think there might have been a little bit of miscommunication between the board members that evening. I’m not sure,” incoming board member Maya Rabasa tells EW, adding that it sounded like they wanted the meeting to be secret, but she is glad that things are cleared up now.
4J’s board policy on appointing a superintendent states the board may conduct a national search. But the venture is costly — according to 4J’s internal financial system, each time a national search is conducted, the district pays a consultant to oversee the hiring process. In hiring Vandercar as interim superintendent, RS2 Education Consulting was paid more than $20,000 in fees. For Balderas, a different consulting company, Hazard Young Attea and Associates, was paid more than $40,000.
These consulting fees don’t include additional estimated expenses, which include thousands of dollars for advertising, travel for board members and candidates, and the paid committee that spends hours conducting interviews and public forums.
When asked about these financial records, Levis says based on previous superintendent searches she was involved in, the total process can cost upward of $96,000.
Levis and Lafer reached out separately to consultant Rob Saxton of RS2 Education Consulting in early June to ask for his advice on conducting a national search for a new superintendent following Vandercar’s positive reviews as interim, according to emails obtained by EW.
Saxton advised against conducting a national search in an email to Lafer, and wrote that superintendents will always be attracted to Eugene, “but when people understand that the current interim superintendent is applying for the job and that her evaluations have been strong, they will not want to apply.”
He continues in the email: “If they are a free agent, it is probably because they have been fired elsewhere and will not be somebody you will want to risk hiring.” He adds that sometimes superintendents who retired in other states will apply, but generally only want to work for a few years.
In a separate email that Saxton wrote to Levis, he shared his thoughts on Vandercar, asking if she had been outstanding in this last year, during the pandemic, how great would she be in a typical year? Saxton also says that the board might risk sending a negative message to the community if they did a national search.
“Seems like the community would assume you are dissatisfied with her work,” Saxton writes.
Rabasa says the hiring of the superintendent is a top priority and is really important because it sets the tone of the whole district, whether the board selects Vandercar or a candidate from another state.
“I’m really happy that it ended up as a work session,” Rabasa says, later adding, “It’s important that we as a big district take it seriously. The district deserves to have all the students, teachers and all the staff members know that we are picking the right person for the right time.”
The work session beginning the discussion on the superintendent hiring process was on June 16.