By Megan Kelley
The Lake Orion Community Schools Board of Education interviewed their top six candidates last week for the position of superintendent.
From June 15-17 the board met with each candidate in one-and-a-half-hour timeslots, and on Thursday narrowed the field down to their top two candidates that would go on to the second round of interviews held on Monday of this week.
The two candidates moving on to the second round of interviews are Vanessa Keesler, Deputy Superintendent at the Michigan Department of Education, and Benjamin Kirby, Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services at South Lyon Community Schools.
However, during their Thursday meeting, the board hit a bump that nearly derailed the current search, when board President Jim Weidman announced he would like to again pause the current search.
“In thinking about this and what we’ve been facing, our whole process, the challenges of dealing with this Coronavirus has permeated everybody’s life and this search process was not exempt from that…it became apparent that superintendents who may consider a new job opportunity chose to stay put and manage this crisis…in their own school district,” Weidman said. “It was a pleasure to visit with so many talented people over the last three nights. While I believe they are capable professionals, I would like to have the opportunity to talk to additional candidates who may not have previously applied for the position.
“Had we not been immersed in the urgent daily management of the pandemic in every school district, I believe the pool of candidates would have been deeper, with qualified, experienced candidates. To accomplish this, I am in favor of pausing the current search so we may get school restarted properly. Then at that time, restart the search process with the opportunity for the board to consider additional candidates,” Weidman said.
The board had previously put the superintendent search on pause when COVID-19 caused schools to be shut down in March and resumed in April. In May, the board unanimously voted to proceed with the superintendent search and approved the current timeline.
“I’d like to note that the entire board is fully behind this and prepared to move forward with it together,” said Weidman during their May 11 meeting to solidify the search timeline.
To several members of the board, the suggestion to pause the superintendent search was “a significant left turn” as far as where the current process is and was going.
“I would have a couple of questions. One is: are we better served to take that thought and set it back toward the back end of the meeting and complete the process that we’ve been on with the expertise and the guidance that John (Silveri, search consultant for The Michigan Leadership Institute) provided us, which was to come around and share our top two and then have a discussion about, out of those two, if we think there are candidates we want to move forward in it and if not, we can come to the comments you made,” said Trustee Nate Butki. “I’m an advocate for following the process we were set on, having the conversation that we were planning for and then coming back to your sentiment and having a discussion about that. Because I think it’s valid and good points but it’s also off the process that we had started on.”
“Well, I’ll keep it on the process, Nate. I don’t select anyone,” Weidman said.
Treasurer Jake Singer echoed Butki’s words, stating that he had spent significant time pouring over the six candidates and would like the board to “trust the process”.
“I do respect you, Jim, if there’s nobody that you want to bring back, you know, an empty set, that’s not no opinion, that’s a null opinion,” Singer said. “I respect that, but there are people that I would like to bring back…I struggled to get to the two that I had because there are multiple qualified people. So, I did not have a problem with the depth of our candidates, especially after we talked to them.”
Trustee Steve Drakos said he felt the board needed to be together on this decision and agreed with Weidman that the board should pause the search and pick it back up again at a later date.
Vice President Birgit McQuiston and Secretary Dana Mermell each said they had selected their top two candidates but were feeling unsure as well and were leaning more toward putting the search on pause.
After some discussion, in which Silveri informed the board that pausing a search and reopening for more applications after the first round of interviews was not something he had encountered before, he also said that, typically, superintendent searches yield the best results when done in the spring.
The board was then faced with the decision to either discuss the current candidates and see where they each stood individually about who they wanted for a second interview, or pause the search entirely and restart at a To Be Determined date.
Trustee Scott Taylor also spoke in favor of proceeding with the interview process.
“If we don’t have the opportunity to ask the difficult questions, how do we truly know if these people aren’t somebody that we want to push forward,” Taylor said. “It’s like you’re on an hour-and-a-half video date and you’re going to get married tomorrow. I feel like we’re shortchanging ourselves because something hard is coming up but we know this is a hard decision. Let’s just do it. I mean, we’re literally talking about one more night and if we take a poll of everybody’s top two and they’re so far all over the board that it doesn’t make sense that there’s two, that’s a whole different conversation also. But if we don’t give ourselves that opportunity, I think that we’re shortchanging this pool and we’re shortchanging our constituents.”
Eventually, the majority of the board agreed to discuss their top two candidates and figure out where each board member stood before continuing the conversation on whether they wanted to pause the search.
The three candidates who received votes were Heidi Mercer, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning at LOCS, Keesler and Kirby. Weidman abstained from casting any votes.
Kirby received six votes, Keesler received four votes (Singer, Butki, McQuiston and Mermell) and Mercer received two votes (Drakos and Taylor).
Kirby seemed to have made an outstanding impression amongst board members. His wide array of experience in several other districts and his ability to give dynamic answers to board questions set him apart from the others.
“I had one candidate, I had one that just stood out head and shoulders above the others, that I was terribly impressed with, and that was Mr. Kirby,” McQuiston said. “His leadership, his background, his skills, his open-mindedness, the way he carried and presented himself and the thing that struck me the most was his fresh approach and his vast background, it wasn’t just limited in one district. I felt like he had a great potential for us and I do look forward to hearing more from him.”
Keesler also made a strong impression on the board. Receiving four votes, a board majority, she stood out because of her less-than-traditional experience in the world of education, with information and contacts at the state-level that could be useful in propelling the district forward.
“Granted, her route is very untraditional, but she is smart as a whip. I respected her. Some of the stuff she shared with us is that she started in a teaching environment and then after that got really interested in collecting data and how that would help the kids. And then she went to policy…now that she knows this information, she wants to put boots to the ground,” Mermell said about her vote to bring Keesler back for a second interview. “I really thought, overall, that she could bring some very unique characteristics.”
Kirby and Keesler were scheduled to be interviewed on Monday night and virtual stakeholder meetings were planned for Tuesday and Wednesday.
Board members are expected to attend virtual site visits on Thursday and Friday of this week.
On June 29, the board will discuss the events from the week prior and potentially select the new superintendent of LOCS.