On March 30, 2023, Superintendent Behm announced his retirement following the 2022-2023 school year. While at that time, a formal end date was not known, the Forest Hills Public Schools Board of Education took immediate action and began the initial stages of what is needed to hire a new superintendent.
The board met with the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB) on April 17, and Nick Ceglarek, Superintendent of Northwest Education Services (Traverse Bay Area ISD) on May 4 to begin answering the question, “How do we attract the very best superintendent candidates to Forest Hills and what should the process look like?” During these professional development sessions and in discussions with leaders in public education, it became very clear to the board that two things must happen simultaneously: hire an interim superintendent and hire an executive search firm.
Why is an interim needed and why is a search firm needed?
The answer can be summarized in two key points: timing and the desire to be thorough. Per Michigan law, the only employee that a public school district must have under contract every day is a school superintendent. Without a superintendent, the Kent Intermediate School District would assume control of Forest Hills Public Schools.
Following Superintendent Behm’s initial retirement announcement in March, he then announced that his official last day as superintendent would be June 30, 2023. By law, once a public school employee retires, they are not allowed to engage professionally with anyone in the school district for 30 days. Furthermore, as indicated above, state law requires a public school district must have a person employed under the title as school superintendent. While the board realized they needed someone by July 1 to serve as superintendent; they also realized that a permanent long-term replacement was not doable in a short timeframe. Two things must be done in tandem with one another: hire an interim superintendent and hire an executive search firm.
The importance of timing and the board’s desire to be thorough to find the best leader as the next permanent superintendent for our district.
- Certainly, superintendents are sought and hired year-round, but the typical timeframe for posting a position and interviewing candidates is winter and early spring. A hired candidate will often finish out the school year in their current district, help ensure a smooth transition for their vacated position, begin in their new district over the summer to get acclimated before students arrive, and have a good foundation when school begins in the fall. With Superintendent Behm’s news of retirement coming at the end of March, that “typical” hiring season was concluding. The board received consistent information from current and former superintendents and educational leaders that searching through the summer would be tricky and perhaps detrimental. Hiring a candidate to start in the fall would mean he or she would have to leave their current district on short notice mid-summer. This would place that district and community in a very tough spot, scrambling to fill the position as a new school year approached. The board was advised that this would likely keep some candidates from applying as they would not want to leave their district on such short notice.
- Desire to be thorough and have abundant community engagement. To have a permanent superintendent by the start of the 2023-2024 school year would require community members, focus groups, parent committees, district staff, students, and others to meet through the summer and particularly the month of June. To the board, this was neither feasible, doable, desirable, equitable or transparent. The entire board agreed that one of the most crucial steps in the process of hiring the next permanent superintendent is the engagement and inclusion of the FHPS community in this process. The board did not see summer as an appropriate time to make this request of the community.
Again, with the process more clear to the board, it became obvious to the board that an interim superintendent would be needed while hiring a search firm to assist in attracting the best candidates to review to become the next permanent superintendent of FHPS.
The interim search process is distinct and completely different from the permanent search process. Leaning on the advice, recommendation, and wisdom from some of Michigan’s most revered public education leaders, former superintendents, and others who have gone through similar processes, the board learned that the interim search process is not as labor intensive nor is it truly a formalized process as hiring a permanent superintendent. Some districts leave the hiring of an interim up to the president of the board to make a decision, and other districts, just appoint someone without doing much research.
The FHPS board recognized the need to be more thorough than other districts and to hire an interim, this successful person would meet many, if not all, of the following criteria:
- Is an experienced superintendent or administrator–someone who already knows how to lead a district and has a successful track record.
- Is available–someone who could potentially commit not for a few weeks, but for six months to even a year if need be.
- Is passionate about serving and working with FHPS–someone who wants to continue to help and serve Forest Hills and perhaps come out of retirement to lead a top-notch district.
- Is familiar and knows the culture of West Michigan and particularly Forest Hills.
- Understands that the position is temporary and is not interested in becoming the permanent superintendent.
- Brings a desire to listen, observe, engage, make decisions where/when necessary, lead, and most importantly help ensure a smooth transition to the next permanent superintendent.
Knowing the board had to have someone in place by July 1, 2023, the board unanimously decided to create a subcommittee to lead the interim process. The individuals were charged with the task to research, vet, discuss, review, and meet individually with any individuals meeting the interim criteria and then bring a recommendation to the board for review and approval. The subcommittee would work on securing an interim superintendent while the whole board focused their attention on hiring a search firm to hire a new permanent superintendent.
The Michigan Association of School Boards provided the Forest Hills Board of Education a list of retired superintendents that indicated a willingness to serve as an interim superintendent. Members of the subcommittee spent dozens of hours devoted to calling current/past board members, teachers, and administrators in other districts to learn more about the individuals on MASB’s list. This helped the subcommittee to further refine the list to six individuals.
Of the six, two indicated that they were not interested in working as an interim at this time as they were enjoying their retirement. One took an interim position in another district that he had prior experience with. One candidate was only interested in an interim position that would last between three and six months. The other two were both viable candidates for the position, and both would be excellent in the role. However, the subcommittee felt one provided Forest Hills with the “best fit.” The subcommittee unanimously agreed to recommend Dr. Sara Shubel, former superintendent of East Grand Rapids Public Schools, and brought their recommendation to the full board for approval to enter into contract negotiations.
The subcommittee kept all members of the board of education apprised of their process and conversations that were ongoing from April through June to secure an interim superintendent. The subcommittee was not under the constraints of the Open Meetings Act, as the subcommittee included three board members. The Open Meetings Act requires that when a quorum (at least four) board members get together, it must be done in a meeting open to the public, which includes advance posted notice, public comments, approval of prior meeting minutes, and other requirements of the law. A subcommittee is charged with doing the work assigned to them, and then is responsible for making recommendations to the full board for a decision.
At the June 5, 2023, meeting of the board of education, the subcommittee again reviewed and detailed the process to the full board. Dr. Shubel formally presented to the board her qualifications and desires to serve Forest Hills Public Schools as interim superintendent. She entertained questions and further dialogue with the board. At the conclusion, a motion was made to enter into contract negotiations, the motion was seconded, and the motion passed with a roll call vote of 6-1. Upon approval of a contract by both parties–the board of education and Dr. Shubel–an interim will be in place to assume the role on July 1, 2023.
Permanent Superintendent Search and Moving Forward
As stated above, the process to hire a permanent superintendent is different from hiring an interim. To find a permanent superintendent, the board of education has decided to select a search firm to facilitate the process. By doing so, and engaging an unbiased third party, there is ample community input, public interviews, district tours, and much more time is allotted for the board to do their due diligence on finding the right educational leader as its next permanent superintendent. The board, with input from all stakeholders, is committed to seek the best person to lead the district for the next several years. In Forest Hills, we have been exceptionally fortunate that our superintendents have stayed much longer than the national average of 3-6 years. Working with a search firm, the board will craft a diligent, intentional plan to engage the community and host a thorough application and interview process–one that is not rushed and hurried.
To help facilitate the search process for a permanent superintendent, at the June 5 meeting of the board of education, the board unanimously voted to hire Michigan Leadership Institute as the district’s search firm to help the board in seeking and acquiring the next permanent leader and superintendent of Forest Hills Public Schools. Additional information regarding the search firms and their presentations, timelines, and updates, can be found on the district’s web page designated to the search, and linked here. The community is encouraged to visit this web page often.