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Chicago sets aggressive deadline for schools CEO hire, as more details emerge about search

School chief Janice Jackson speaking into microphones at a press conference.
School chief Janice Jackson speaking at a press conference with Mayor Lori Lightfoot on the first day of school last fall.
Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat

Chicago will pay up to $70,000 for its national search to replace outgoing schools chief Janice Jackson on an aggressive timeline that aims to install a successor by Aug. 1.

According to its contract, the district will pay its consultants, Illinois-based BWP & Associates, a fee of $45,000 and as much as $35,000 for expenses, which does not include the cost of advertising the position. The district engaged the firm in late April on the eve of Jackson’s announcement last week that she would step down after about three years at the district’s helm when her contract expires this summer.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot last week promised an unprecedented level of public engagement and transparency in the process. Although she will make the final call on who lands the district’s top job, she said she will not make the decision “behind closed doors” as has been the case with CEO hires in recent years. The district’s contract suggests the public will get to weigh about the traits residents want to see in the next CEO — not necessarily about the frontrunners for the job.

Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, appointed Jackson, the district’s academic chief at the time, without conducting a search. In fact, the district believes this might be the first time it has enlisted an outside consultant and launched a national search since the mid-1990s. Among the previous CEOs were multiple mayoral appointees from other city agencies that had little or no classroom experience.

Chicago is paying roughly the average cost for national superintendent searches, said Dan Domenech of the American Association of School Administrators, though he said costs can run higher if the services include public meetings to get input on the ideal candidate, extensive background checks, and more.

“You want a good head-hunter that’s not going to wait around for applicants,” he said. “They’re going to go after the people who would be a good fit.”

Domenech said BWP is a well-established consultancy with a solid reputation — and they have their work cut out for them. While he expects the post will draw no shortage of applicants, “only a handful of people” are likely qualified to take on the high-pressure job, with the right combination of instructional expertise, political savvy, and other key skills.

Jackson’s No. 2 and No. 3, Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade and Chief Operations Officer Arnie Rivera, also are stepping down by the end of the school year, so the city’s new CEO likely will appoint the leadership suite. That opportunity could make the job attractive to candidates eager to chart their own direction.

The contract with BWP spells out more details and a timeline for the search process. The contract says the firm must oversee a community engagement process that could include small group meetings between the firm and teachers, administrators, parents or others to get feedback on what they want to see in Jackson’s replacement; public forums to get additional input; and an online survey.

The firm will craft a “leadership profile” of the district’s dream CEO based on that input, advertise the position, and proactively recruit candidates. It will conduct criminal background checks and more informally vet the candidate’s professional credentials and reputations. It will also conduct pre-screening interviews with applicants for the position.

School board members will interview a short list of candidates in closed meetings.

Under the district’s timeline, the firm will work on recruiting candidates until mid-June, review applicants’ credentials during the week of June 21, present a short list of top contenders to the board in late June, oversee two rounds of interviews in July, and announce Lightfoot’s pick July 26. The goal is to list Aug. 1 as the new CEO’s contract start date.

The district has said that it solicited bids for a search firm earlier this spring to fill the position of Jackson’s second-in-command, McDade, who announced back in March she would take on the top job at Prince William County Schools in Virginia. The district then reframed the search job to focus on finding a new CEO instead.

BWP is the firm that handled the Prince William County superintendent search.

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