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Search for Boston superintendent begins

As Boston begins its search for a new superintendent, the School Committee will try to avoid the missteps, repeated delays, and disappointments that marked its previous hunt six years ago.

But potential obstacles are emerging.

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With Superintendent Carol R. Johnson announcing her intention to retire on April 24, the committee will not have enough time to hire a permanent replacement before she leaves in July, forcing it to focus first on finding a temporary leader.

Then the search for a permanent successor could sputter at times, as the mayoral race heats up. That is because the most desirable candidates may be reluctant to give Boston serious consideration until they know if their vision and leadership style will mesh with whoever replaces Mayor Thomas M. Menino after the November election.

“You really want to know who your boss is going to be,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

But Michael O’Neill, the School Committee chairman, said he is optimistic that this search will go smoothly. Members will, for the first time, discuss how to proceed with replacing Johnson at their meeting Wednesday night, and they will hear a presentation about the experiences of other districts that recently hired superintendents.

“We want to learn from the other [superintendent] searches done in the city and in other cities,” O’Neill said. “What is important is getting the right person who is a leader in urban education, who recognizes the things we have done well to date and things that can be improved. We have a lot going on in Boston and we don’t want to lose that momentum.”

The search arrives at a critical time. Boston is in the midst of rolling out a new system of evaluating teachers and administrators, and early results are raising concerns about why black and Latino teachers are being placed on improvement plans at higher rates.

School district leaders also are scrambling to prevent a possible state takeover of two schools, and are carefully implementing a new system of assigning students to schools closer to home, the biggest change in student assignment in more than two decades.

Menino has made finding a new superintendent a top priority for his remaining months in office, saying in a speech last week, “I am confident that we will bring the very best educator to Boston to take our school system to the next level.”

Dot Joyce, spokeswoman for Menino, said the mayor, who appoints the School Committee and has considerable say over the hiring of a superintendent, has not ruled out bringing in a new school chief before a new mayor is elected, but she stressed any discussion about a timeline was premature.

“Let’s get the process started, and then we will make those determinations,” she said.

The prospect that Boston’s superintendent search could get off on a bumpy start is rekindling memories of the previous search, a long and arduous task that for many turned into a huge embarrassment.

In September 2006, Menino announced with much fanfare that Manuel J. Rivera would become the city’s next superintendent, ending a nine-month search marred by repeated delays, accusations of secrecy, and the abrupt withdrawal of most finalists after the Globe revealed their names.

But four months later, Rivera unexpectedly bowed out as contract negotiations soured and after he secured another position with the New York governor’s office — angering Menino. Many city politicians blamed Liz Reilinger, then School Committee chairwoman, for the debacle, prompting her to resign as head of the search committee, concerned the criticism would create a distraction in a new search.

“Our failure was we did not nail [Rivera] down on a contract right away,” said the Rev. Gregory Groover, a School Committee member who also served on the previous search committee. Groover later co-chaired the search that ultimately lured Johnson from Memphis.

Mary Tamer, another School Committee member who also served on the previous search committee, said, “I would not expect history to repeat itself again.”

Boston will face stiff competition for a new superintendent, driven by a dwindling pool of desirable candidates and a high turnover of superintendents across the nation, education specialists said. The American Association of School Administrators estimates that the average tenure in large districts has shrunk to less than three years.

“The superintendency has quickly become one of the toughest jobs in the country, particularly in urban settings,” said Domenech. “The economic recession, plus the continued demand for improved performance in those city districts, has made it incredibly tough for individuals to go in there to do the job — in essence to perform miracles to make the kinds of gains that the board and community might be expecting.”

Searches are underway in districts including Prince George’s County, Md.; Oakland, Calif., New Orleans; Indianapolis; El Paso; Wake County, N.C.; and Camden, N.J. Nevertheless, Boston, long considered a plum assignment, should attract a lot of attention, specialists said.

“They will have more people [applying] than other districts in the country,” said Bill Librera, president of the northeast division of Hazard, Young Attea & Associates, an executive search firm headquartered in Illinois. “Boston is and probably will always be a draw as a city and a school district. . . . There isn’t reason to be pessimistic about potential responders to the position.”

Even against the backdrop of a mayor’s race, specialists said highly sought-after candidates would probably agree to be interviewed confidentially in the initial phases of the search, but would probably be reluctant to have their names publicly revealed as finalists until after the mayoral election and, in some cases, after they have an opportunity to meet the new mayor in private.

Seeking a new job can be risky for candidates already serving as superintendents elsewhere, potentially causing their local boards, parents, and teachers to question their commitment to the district. They also would not want to take a job only to discover they do not get along with a new mayor, and may have to start looking for another post again.

Earlier this year, the school board in Prince George’s County announced three finalists for superintendent, but all abruptly pulled out because a bill gained momentum in the Legislature that would give the county executive the power to hire the superintendent instead of the school board.

O’Neill said Boston’s School Committee most likely will create a search committee to vet the candidates, and that there would be a round of community meetings. He said he hopes the committee will appoint an interim superintendent by the end of May or early June.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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