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July 31, 2015

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Search firm’s new price demands cause School Board to pause

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Dwight Jones, the Clark County School Superintendent, is photographed in his office Thursday, January 20, 2011.

Conducting a national search for a new superintendent will likely cost the Clark County School District at least $4,000 more than its last search.

McPherson & Jacobson — the same firm that brought Superintendent Dwight Jones to the district in 2010 — raised its base consulting fee by 10 percent, from $38,500 to $42,500.

School Board members balked at the search firm's proposed fee to replace Superintendent Dwight Jones, who is stepping down Friday to care for his elderly mother in Texas.

Last week, the board opted out of a bid process to find a search firm, instead choosing to negotiate a contract with a firm they had worked with previously. The thinking was that by not doing a "Request for Proposal" — common in government contracting — the district and the search firm would both save money, School Board President Carolyn Edwards said.

"They're not cutting us a break?" Edwards asked, seemingly incredulous at the price increase. "It seems to me they ought to shave $2,000 off (the price for not having to go through the trouble of bidding)."

Clark County — the nation's fifth-largest school district — is perhaps the largest client McPherson & Jacobson has worked with. Since 2010, the firm has conducted superintendent searches in places like Olympia, Wash., Billings, Mont., and Little Rock, Ark.

On Thursday, the School Board voted to delay its decision on the contract to its April 3 work session meeting to allow district staff to continue negotiations over the preliminary parameters and price of the search.

If the board approves a contract, community meetings to get public input about the superintendent search will take place in April and May.

The School Board wants McPherson & Jacobson to bring back no fewer than four finalist candidates — one of whom may be devoted to a local candidate. Last time, the firm brought back three candidates, one of whom dropped out.

If the search yields a superintendent who decides to leave the district within two years, the firm has agreed to a free do-over of the search, except for any expenses relating to travel to and from Las Vegas. Last time, this "warranty" was just one year.

The firm must also provide a backup candidate should any of the four finalist candidates drop. In addition, the School Board wants a closer look at how expenses will be billed.

For its $42,500 base consulting fee, McPherson & Jacobson is offering as many as six consultants to search, vet and advise the board on choosing the best candidate for superintendent. The fee includes five days of onsite services provided by a team of four consultants — excluding their travel and lodging expenses, which are capped at $7,700.

If the board wishes to have more days of onsite consulting, the district would be charged $700 per consultant per day, plus additional travel and lodging expenses.

Adding the cost of advertising and 12 community meetings to gauge public input, the total cost of the search is likely to balloon past the $60,000 figure the district paid the firm in 2010.

School Board members seemed uneasy about the price on Thursday, debating whether to negotiate for fewer consultants, consulting days and taking on tasks such as conducting community input meetings on their own.

"I'd like to see us spend less than last time," School Board member Erin Cranor said. "Just on principle, we ought to spend less than we did in 2010, especially if the board and community are doing work."

"I feel like we can do some things ourselves," School Board member Lorraine Alderman said.

A sticking point was the issue of travel and lodging expenses. School District policy requires that travel reimbursements are limited to economy plane seats and reasonable hotels and restaurants.

However, instead of imposing its internal "per diem" guidelines to McPherson & Jacobson last time, the School District paid the full amount for receipts submitted. The district did not say Thursday night what kind of travel and lodging accommodations were afforded the search firm in 2010.

This time around, the School Board will seek to have the search firm adhere to its government "per diem" guidelines.

"If we're going to do actual figures, we have to set some limits," Edwards said. "We have to have some understanding about that."

Edwards and Cranor initially seemed eager to give the final nod to drafting up a contract with McPherson & Jacobson. However, Alderman and School Board member Linda Young weren't convinced about hiring a search firm with questions over costs and procedures still lingering.

"I think we're sending a bad message here," Alderman said. "I would rather we waited (to make a decision)."

Young also questioned the board's timeline for selecting its next superintendent. The board seems to prefer hiring a permanent superintendent between October and December.

That timeframe puts current superintendents who may wish to apply in a bind, thereby hampering the School District's search process, Young said.

According to a tentative timeline put forth by the district and McPherson & Jacobson, superintendent interviews and searches would take place in September — right when most school districts are starting their new school year. Few superintendents may wish to leave their job at the start of the year to move to Clark County, Young said.

Furthermore, Young said she was uncomfortable with quickly hiring a search firm when most parents at a community meeting on Tuesday questioned the board's insistence on conducting a national search. Many community members in attendance argued the School District already has seemingly qualified employees who could step up to the superintendent role.

"I don't think that consultants are all that smart," Young said. "We have a lot of talented, capable people in this district.

"We keep looking outside, but we have so many hidden talents inside (the district)."

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