Go with a recognized, established search firm or rely on the informal hometown team. 

That is one aspect of the choice facing the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education as its members consider whom to lead the search for a new superintendent.

Last week the school board heard pitches from four firms: actually three firms and the impromptu team of former District 96 Superintendent David Bonnette and the former Lyons Township High School District 204 Superintendent Dennis Kelly.

The board is expected to make its choice at its September meeting.

“We’re going to have a tough choice to pick one,” said board member Randy Brockway. 

At its Aug. 18 meeting, the board listened to presentations from the Illinois Association of School Boards, School Exec Connect, Ray and Associates and the team of Bonnette and Kelly.

The Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) does many searches, but they are more commonly used in downstate Illinois. In the 2014-15 school year the IASB conducted 22 searches, but only in Cook County. Those searches were in Berkeley School District 87, Hillside School District 93, and Norridge School District 80. 

The IASB representative, Tom Leahy played up his organization’s Illinois connections.

“We do know Illinois very well, because we’ve been doing this for over 50 years,” Leahy said.

The IASB presented two options. One, which would cost $4,000, would be a limited search. They would find candidates but leave the vetting to the District 96 interim superintendents Patrick Patt and Griff Powell. A full search done by the IASB would cost between $7,400 to $9,900.

School Exec Connect and Ray and Associates are both based out of state, but have extensive operations and consultants, typically retired superintendents, in Illinois. These firms touted their experience and national reach. They have been used by many suburban districts. 

If School Exec Connect is chosen, the search would be led by David Clough, who was the superintendent at Community High School District 128 which is made up of Libertyville High School and Vernon Hills High School, and Gary Zabilka, who led Morton Grove School District 70.

“We are known nationally,” Zabilka said. Clough also emphasized that School Exec Connect, which has its headquarters in Minneapolis, has a Midwest focus. 

Zabilka said that School Exec Connect will tailor its search to the needs and desires of District 96.

“We do not have a stable of candidates that we move from search to search,” said Zabilka, addressing one of the most common criticisms of search firms.

School Exec Connect’s consulting fee is $16,500 plus $2,200 for expenses and up to $4,000 for advertising. 

Ray and Associates, which is based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is the biggest firm of the bunch. Their Chicago area duo emphasized their national reach and the in-depth research they do with candidates, including a preliminary screening interview done by video. 

“We’re the only firm that does video interviews,” said Mary Fasbender of Ray and Associates. 

Fasbender also said Ray and Associates makes it a point to talk to many different people who have worked with and know the candidates and doesn’t just talk to listed references.

“We do a lot of in-depth recruiting, talk to non-references, talk to union leaders,” Fasbender said. “We really get to know the candidates.”

The other contenders also emphasized that they talk to a wide range of people and not just listed references. Ray and Associates’ base fee is $16,000 plus expenses.

Bonnette and Kelly would team up to do their search and would charge no more than $9,000, Bonnette told the school board.

“It will probably be less than that,” Bonnette said.

Bonnette and Kelly emphasized their personal connections and commitment to District 96. Bonnette served as superintendent of District 96 for 13 years and was a school superintendent for 36 years. Kelly was a superintendent for 26 years, including his last 17 years at LTHS.

“I think Dennis and I are in the best position to sell this district,” said Bonnette, who still lives in Riverside. Kelly’s grandson is in kindergarten at Ames School.

“I would like this district to have a great superintendent that will be here for my grandkid’s education,” Kelly said.

Kelly said the experience he and Bonnette have would help them pick out good candidates.

“We have been around the block a number of times,” Kelly said. “It’s going to be very hard to pull the wool over our eyes.”

Bonnette and Kelly also said they would mentor the new superintendent for one year at no additional charge. 

One factor that could hurt Bonnette and Kelly is that they have never done a superintendent search before. But they said they worked together a few years ago to find a new director for LADSE, the LaGrange Area Special Education cooperative. Bonnette also conducted the search this spring that led to District 96 hiring new assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction Merryl Brownlow.

All the contenders said they thought the District 96 job would attract a wide range of strong candidates.

“You’ll have an excellent applicant pool, in my opinion,” Leahy said.

School board President Jeff Miller said the school board is looking for someone who will stay for a while.

“We want to have someone here who’s committed to the schools for the long haul, not someone who wants to look as this as stepping stone for a couple years,” Miller said.

All the contenders recognized that the district was looking for stability after issues with the prior two superintendents.

“You really need to hit a home run,” Zabilka told the school board. “Leadership has been, shall we say, shaky the last few years.”