The Durham Public Schools Board of Education on Wednesday night, April 19, agreed to consider hiring a search firm to help find a replacement for Superintendent Bert L’Homme who announced earlier this month that he will retire in August.
The school board has already begun to receive letters of interest from search firms that want the job of helping the board to find the district’s next superintendent.
“Our next step is to start evaluating individually the search firms,”School board Chairman Mike Lee said. “I think it’s going to be important to do our individual research to find the best search firm to accomplish our goals.”
The board made the decision to consider hiring a search firm in a special meeting to discuss “next steps” in the wake of L’Homme’s stunning news April 3 that he would step down before his contract expired in 2020.
School board member Matt Sears asked his colleagues to consider other search services that specialize in identifying superintendents.
Sears said he’s interested in exploring how major corporations identify top talent.
“I hope, and I’ll do some homework between now and next Thursday, we may look at what are other services out there that go identify candidates based on a profile,” Sear said.
School board member Minnie Forte-Brown countered that traditional search firms will identify non-traditional candidates if the board makes such a request.
“You tell the search firm what it is you want,” Forte-Brown said.
In addition to agreeing to consider a search firm, the board said it would attempt to hammer out a deadline for the search process before its next regular business meeting April 27.
Lee said he thinks the board can put a plan in place to have a superintendent hired by the time schools operating on a traditional calendar open in August.
Board members said such a pace would be ideal but acknowledged the school district would be on a very tight schedule if it hoped to also receive and consider community input before selecting the next superintendent.
School board members stressed that the search for a new leader should include internal candidates.
Forte-Brown said hiring from within could prove to be a stabilizing force for a district preparing for another heavy round of budget cuts.
“Anytime you mention search people get antsy because they know when a new leader comes in things change,” Forte-Brown said. “I think Durham Public Schools is in a position to look inwardly.”
Forte-Brown said she would like to see a leader in place before L’Homme’s departs on August 4.
“I think our parents, I think our teachers, I think our staff, need to know that we are thinking along those lines and that we don’t want to see any upheaval or a whole new reset,” Forte-Brown said. “I don’t want to see people get antsy and start moving west and east.”
School board member Steve Unruhe said DPS has strong leaders who would make compelling candidates for the superintendent’s post. But Unruhe said he prefers to open up the search.
“Whoever we hire either from within the system or from outside knows they are being chosen from the strongest possible pool,” Unruhe said.
School board member Xavier Cason said he initially thought finding L’Homme’s replacement would require a long, drawn out national search.
“Since then, I’ve realized you have given us a gift as far as timing is concerned,” Cason told L’Homme. “We really do have time to get a replacement in before you retire.”
At the start of Wednesday’s meeting, board members paid tribute to L’Homme, thanking him for “righting the ship” they contend was listing under former superintendent Eric Becoats who resigned after the board voted not to extend his contract when it expired in 2013.
Becoats had been disciplined for credit card spending and using a school activity bus for personal use.
“You came in to right a ship that was definitely heading off course,” Lee said.
School board Vice Chairwoman Natalie Beyer said the work L’Homme has put in as superintendent makes clear how much he cares for the Durham community.
“This is not an easy community and this is not an easy board to work for,” Beyer said. “We owe gratitude upon gratitude for your leadership and expertise and your school.”
School board member Bettina Umstead said L’Homme has earned the community’s respect.
“I think you have a vision for Durham that has allowed us to make some bold changes in the way we do our work,” Umstead said, citing L’Homme’s work on immigration policy, changes to the Student Code of Conduct and his ability to engage the community in meaningful conversation.
In a statement announcing his plans to retire, L’Homme cited the changing “landscape of public education” for his decision to retire before the end of his contract.
“In January, I realized that I likely will not have the physical or mental energy to respond to those challenges, while at the same time dramatically accelerating our academic growth, for the duration of my contract,” L’Homme said.
L’Homme, 67, was hired to lead the school district in June 2014 at a salary of $225,000 a year.
His contract was amended last August to extend through June 2020.