Profile for new leader in board's hands

More than 20 candidates have applied to become the next superintendent in Hinsdale High School District 86, and board members now have a profile of what type of individual they should hire.

The profile was developed with input from 157 people who participated in focus groups and 657 people who completed an online survey, according to Kevin O’Mara, president of School Exec Connect, the firm conducting the search.

He and colleague Brian Barnhart met over two days with 20 different focus groups that included school board members, administrators, teachers, staff, parents, students, elected officials and community members.

“Lots of good communication happened and we were grateful for their input,” O’Mara told board members at their Oct. 12 meeting.

Participants were asked for complete honesty, Barnhart said.

“We pushed for details and clarifications and examples, especially if we got a buzzword type of response within the group,” he told board members. “What is reported this evening are the themes that we heard across the various groups that we met with.”

People expressed a lot of pride in the district and a number of strengths, including dedicated and competent personnel, high student achievement, myriad academic and extracurricular opportunities for students, strong community support, a challenging curriculum, great facilities and diversity.

“People specifically move here so that their students can attend District 86 schools,” he said.

Barnhart grouped the challenges the district faces, with the top three being communication, trust and governance. Miscommunication, lack of transparency and lack of trust were all mentioned, he noted.

“It is throughout the school community,” Barnhart said of trust issues. “That will be something that will need to be addressed by the new superintendent.”

Stakeholders believe political agendas impede consensus and want a better relationship between the board and the superintendent.

The next group of challenges is the achievement gap, diversity, curriculum and systems. People need more data to understand the extent of the achievement gap and would like more clarity on equity and equality in the district.

One word came up often during discussions of curriculum.

“Alignment is something we pushed hard on because we heard it from group after group after group,” Barnhart said. “One of the important things for you and for the new superintendent to know is that alignment means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.”

Systems and structures need work, Barnhart said.

“Clarification on who within the organization is responsible for strategic vs. tactical vs. operational needs to really be a focal point as the new leader arrives in District 86,” he explained.

The final challenge is repairing the district’s image, which has taken some hits in the media and on social media, Barnhart said.

Traits desired in a new superintendent include strong leadership, excellent communication skills, visibility, experience in a high-performing district and accountability.

Students in particular want opportunities to interact with the new leader, Barnhart said.

“It came across all the groups, but your kids said that to us regularly,” he said.

O’Mara reviewed the survey results with the board, which had similar themes. Seventy percent of respondents were parents, guardians or community members. Among the challenges, respondents identified board governance as No. 1 by a large margin, he said.

The profile for the new superintendent, which is available online at, lists 19 traits the new superintendent should have.

“This is the lens we will use, as I said, to continue our recruitment and to make sure we get the right slate (of candidates) for the board to consider as this process moves on,” O’Mara said.

The firm plans to bring a slate of five or six candidates to the board for interviews. The board has set a goal of hiring a new superintendent before the end of the year.

Board member Jeff Waters asked if the firm was pleased with the number of applicants, which was 21 as of the board meeting and expected to grow.

“We’re past where I thought we might be. That’s a good number,” O’Mara said, noting another search the firm is conducting has garnered only nine applicants.

“Hinsdale is a great place,” he added. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its challenges. It’s got its challenges. We heard that loud and clear in some of our focus groups and some of the survey responses, but it’s a great place.”

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean