This week, the real work begins for the Riverside Elementary School District Board of Education as board members enter the final stages of choosing a new superintendent. 

The entire school board will interview the six semifinalists for the position on three successive evenings beginning on Jan. 12. Each of the six semifinalists will appear before the board for about an hour or so. 

After the final interview on Thursday, Jan. 14 the board will choose three finalists to invite back for second interviews next week. The board does not anticipate naming a new superintendent, who would start on July 1, until its February board meeting, but will probably make its decision late this month. 

Hiring a superintendent is probably the most important decision that the school board members will make in their time on the board.

What kind of person is the school board looking for?

“We’re looking for a good, strong leader who is a strong communicator, good relationships with teachers, the administration, the press, and the board,” said school board member Randy Brockway. “All of those things are very important to us.”

Up until now the search for a new superintendent primarily has been handled by retired superintendents David Bonnette and Dennis Kelly, who were hired as consultants to lead the search, along with Co-Interim Superintendent Patrick Patt. 

Bonnette, Kelly and Patt reviewed and screened the 47 people who applied for the job and first narrowed the field to 11 candidates. Then Bonnette, Kelly and Patt, as a three-person group, met with and conducted informal interviews with all 11 promising candidates to narrow the field to six. 

“Our objective from the very beginning was to give the board six really strong candidates, so making the decision would be very difficult for them. And I believe we accomplished that,” Patt said. 

Three of the six semifinalists are already superintendents, Bonnette said. The other three work as assistant superintendents. Four are men and two are women. Five of the six currently work in the Chicagoland area; one is from out of state. 

Five of the six have doctoral degrees, and the other semifinalist is working on a doctoral degree. Two of the six candidates also have certification to be a chief school business officer.

“We believe any one of them could step into the position and do the job the job in terms of what the expectations of the board are and the staff and community,” said Bonnette, who served as District 96 superintendent for 13 years from 1992 until 2005. “We feel that they really are all employable and could do the job and do it well.”

This week’s interviews with the six semifinalists and next week’s interviews with the three finalists will be conducted in closed session. The names of the candidates will not be released to the public. 

“Nowadays most searches are confidential, and the reason is obviously because these people all have jobs and we don’t want to in any way jeopardize their current position by the fact that they’re coming here and applying for this one,” said District 96 school board President Jeff Miller. 

Keeping the names of candidates private results in a better applicant pool, Bonnette said.

“We have a much broader field than would have been the case if this were a much more open process,” Bonnette said.

After difficult and controversial experiences with the last two superintendents, the District 96 board is under pressure to get this hire right. 

“Because of the past history, this is a very important decision,” Patt said.

No one on the school board has ever played a role in hiring a superintendent before, so this is a new experience for all the board members.

Five District 96 staff members will sit on the board’s interviews with the semifinalists and will fill out a form with open-ended questions to provide feedback to the board on the candidates. 

But the five staff members will not rank the candidates and, other than providing feedback, will not play a role in deciding whom to invite back for final interviews.

The staff members sitting in on the interviews and providing feedback will be Patt, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Merryl Brownlow, Director of Special Education Pan Shaw, Ames School Principal Todd Gierman and Bill Howes, an elementary school music teacher and the president of the Riverside Education Council, the District 96 teachers’ union.

“It’s just getting a lot of different people to look at some things and maybe give some feedback to the board that other people didn’t pick up on,” Patt said. 

A larger group, which will probably include five parents, will sit in on the interviews next week with the three finalists.