JCPS-79Jefferson County Public Schools wants to change the way in which principals are hired, and the JCPS Board of Education took a step in that direction on Monday by including this goal in its approved 2016 legislative agenda.

Specifically, the board is urging the General Assembly to pass legislation granting JCPS Superintendent Dr. Donna Hargens the authority to select school principals, while still “maintaining a central role for the school-based decision making council in the decision.”

Dr. Hargens lobbied for this change in a February Courier-Journal editorial, saying high-performing principals do not apply for open positions because the names of applicants are too often exposed by word-of-mouth or media. Applicants not accepted then have a hard time continuing leadership in a school community that no longer trusts them to stick around.

In the editorial, Hargens points out that state law only allows superintendents to select a new principal for schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent, which she calls “unacceptable.”

This week, IL sat down with Dr. Shawna L. Stenton, a specialist in JCPS’s Office of School-Based Decision Making, to better understand the current hiring process for principals; we’ll follow up on the issue once the legislative session is underway.

A little history

The 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act called for sweeping reform of Kentucky’s schools under KRS 160.345. Part of the change was to take most hiring decisions away from superintendents; this included the creation of school-based decision making councils charged with hiring principals at each school.

These checks and balances were put into place in response to perceptions of biased hiring and nepotism in some of Kentucky’s school systems.

How it works

The SBDM council — there’s one at each school — hires principals, sets some school policy, oversees the budget and curriculum, and is consulted in the hiring of all staff. The principal makes the final decision in hiring school staff.

The council for most schools consists of six people: two parents, three teachers and the principal. The parents and the teachers are elected.

When it’s time to hire a new principal, the current principal recuses himself from all related council activity and is replaced by an assistant superintendent who acts as the sixth member.

All six members have equal votes, and all principal hires must be agreed upon by a majority of the council; in this case, four of the six members must agree. Stenton said most principal hires are unanimous.

The school council receives training in recruitment and interviewing techniques prior to carrying out the process of selecting a principal; usually Stenton does this training.

“Wise councils,” according to Stenton, create an interview committee and include other stakeholders in the school in the interview process, though this is not mandatory. The curation for such committees should be deliberately diverse and include parents at most grade levels and both teachers and support staff at the school.

This interview committee usually helps draw up a school survey — sometimes for parents, teachers and students, and sometimes just for teachers — asking what the stakeholders are looking for in a candidate for principal.

The results are compiled and submitted to the superintendent’s office where a slating committee, all of whom are former principals, select the top candidates. However, interview committees are not limited to just these applicants and at any time can request an interview with any applicant who meets the hiring criteria for a principal.

The interview committee reviews résumés, conducts interviews in closed sessions, and checks references before making a recommendation to the school’s council, which makes the final decision.

Confidentiality concerns

During this process, Stenton said, the strictest of confidence is expected among those involved.

But according to Dr. Hargens, that’s not always the case and is part of the problem with the SBDM council selection process.

This confidentiality problem also means councils are discouraged from digging any deeper at a candidate’s current school, limiting background information to what is provided by a candidate’s selected references.

In her February editorial for the C-J, Hargens wrote, “There are many distinguished principals who would take on a new challenge. But they are understandably reluctant to apply in a process that by law should be but is often not confidential. That’s why I believe the superintendent needs more authority to intervene in selecting principals…”

In the last legislative session, Senate Bill 132 would have done just that, but the General Assembly came to an end without action being taken.

The upcoming session convenes on Jan. 5 and could take up the issue once again.