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Hunt for a Boston Public Schools chief accelerates

Panel hopes to name finalists by June, hears call for a slower process

A 12-member panel overseeing the search for a superintendent for Boston Public Schools is looking to hire a candidate who could be on the job by September.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/file 2013

A 12-member panel overseeing the search for a superintendent for Boston Public Schools is looking to hire a candidate who could be on the job by September.

A panel overseeing the recruitment of a superintendent is racing to hire a schools chief who could be on the job by September, with the first official advertisement for the position set to go up May 1.

The 12-member committee, made up of educators, parents, and others, expects to name finalists in June.

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That will leave the committee with only weeks to vet the candidates. But the search panel is optimistic that it can accomplish the make-it-or-break-it task.

“What we are hearing from our search firm is that lots of people are looking at this opportunity,” said Hardin Coleman, cochairman of the panel. “I have no doubt from the second you can submit applications, there will be 10 people, who could be finalists, come in on day one.”

Some education advocates, however, are urging the committee to slow the search and to conduct a more methodical analysis of candidates, instead of potentially rushing to name finalists who may not be the right fit for Boston.

“I’m suggesting you need to start thinking about a plan B,” John Mudd, a longtime education advocate, told the search panel at its meeting last Wednesday afternoon as he implored the group to abandon the “aggressive timeline.”

The panel is not closed to the idea of extending the search; Coleman said in an interview Friday that if the panel is unsatisfied with the candidates it will work beyond the deadline to find the right person to replace Carol R. Johnson, who retired in August.

He said Boston can do that because interim Superintendent John McDonough has been orchestrating a number of overhauls that is pushing the system forward, and McDonough is willing to stay until a permanent replacement is found.

McDonough, who previously served as the system’s chief financial officer, has said he does not want the job permanently.

Both Michael O’Neill, the School Committee chairman, and Mayor Martin J. Walsh have said they support extending the timeline if the search panel fails to attract a high-caliber candidate pool this spring.

“I agree the timeline is aggressive, but as we said at the outset, we always reserve the right to adjust as necessary,” O’Neill reiterated in a text message over the weekend. “Not clear at this point, if it will be necessary.”

Although the School Committee hires the superintendent, Walsh carries considerable sway in the decision. The mayor appoints the School Committee and the schools chief is a member of his cabinet.

Since the search panel was named in February, the members have been working on a critical task: identifying the desired characteristics of a new superintendent and some of the key issues the new leader must address.

That process, which must come before the position can be advertised, began with a series of public forums held in March. But turnout was low, ranging between 20 and 50 attendees.

The forums occurred as parents were mobilizing protests against millions of dollars in cuts to next year’s school budget.

A student-sponsored event on the issue, however, drew more than 200 students.

The search panel also launched an online survey that garnered more than 400 responses, and the search firm of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates met with individuals and focus groups.

A profile of desired attributes for the next superintendent, based on the responses received, is now emerging.

The ideal candidate would need to be a collaborator, as Walsh noted while he was campaigning last year. That leader, based on the community feedback, would also need to be someone who can build upon the successes already occurring in the school system and accelerate improvement.

It is the same kind of leadership mission that a previous search panel identified more than seven years ago that led to the hiring of Johnson, whose tenure garnered mixed reviews.

Search firm representatives, in sharing the characteristics with the search committee on Wednesday, said the message from many attendees at the forums was that Boston did not need a “turnaround superintendent” because the school system has a lot going for it and does not require a dramatic change in direction.

But Bill Henderson, a former Boston school principal who is a search committee member, warned that many of the city’s high schools require much attention and work.

“Many are on the verge of being turnaround schools,” Henderson said at the meeting. “There is an urgency here.”

Laura Perille, a search committee member who is president of the education nonprofit EdVestors, said she heard that some candidates might be reluctant to apply because Walsh’s positions on education are not widely known.

One of the representatives from the search firm said he has fielded the same concern, but added that potential candidates often say that when a new political leader is in place and they end up applying anyway.

The search panel expects to finalize the list of characteristics at another meeting this month. It will then be submitted to the School Committee on April 30 for approval, allowing the job to be publicly advertised the next day.

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