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School board defends superintendent search process

Matthew Cheeseman, superintendent of Perquimans County Schools in Hertford, N.C.1 / 2
Shon Hocker, current superintendent in the Big Horn School District of Cowley, Wyo2 / 2

The Dickinson Public School Board Thursday night determined the final two candidates for the position of superintendent for the Dickinson Public School district, bringing a search process that has drawn some criticism closer to its end.

The two candidates, Dr. Shon Hocker, current superintendent in the Big Horn School District of Cowley, Wyo., and Matthew Cheeseman, superintendent of Perquimans County Schools in Hertford, N.C., beat out 39 applicants and were two of four semi-final candidates for the position, all four of whom spoke with the school board for the first time in a day-long string of interviews that went on for about 12 hours on Thursday.

The candidates were flown out to Dickinson where interviews were conducted in closed meetings. The travel costs were handled by Ray and Associates, the search firm that helped find these candidates, who will in turn bill the school district for those expenses with the charge for their services, according to the school board's president, Brent Seaks.

The finalists' resumes were provided as public documents and a brief example of their credentials are as follows:

Hocker has been superintendent in Cowley since 2007, serving a district of 1,150 students across six schools. The district budget he oversees is approximately $25 million, and in his time as superintendent he has overseen the construction of school facilities, including a new $25 million 6 - 12 secondary school and a new $2.5 million admin building. His district's elementary school was recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in 2009 and 2017.

Cheeseman has been superintendent of schools in Hertford since January 2016, before which he worked as the Chief Administrative Officer and Chief Academic Officer for Washington County Schools in Plymouth, N.C. Cheeseman's accomplishments include negotiating what he describes as an "unprecedented" local funding increase of 433 percent, resulting in an increase in classified salaries and teacher supplements. Cheeseman's other listed accomplishments include being the lead administrator in the preliminary planning to construct two new schools, acquisition of a $40,387 playground and securing $1.2 million to begin the planning and construction of an athletic complex for his district that resulted in a new football stadium slated for completion in August 2018.

Hocker provided a list of awards he'd been recognized for, including Wyoming Superintendent of the Year in 2016. He has served as a Scoutmaster for the Boy Scouts of America, was the president-elect for the Shelley Idaho Chapter of Kiwanis International and served as a football coach, principal and assistant principal prior to serving as superintendent. He describes his willingness to base making "extremely tough decisions" on "doing what is right, even if not popular" as a part of his leadership ability. He will "never" base decisions on superintendent tenure, longevity or job security.

The process through which these candidates were finalized drew some criticism along the way, a conflict regarding readings of the North Dakota Century Code, which was relatively recently amended to provide increased privacy to applicants for public positions, such as a school superintendent. Dickinson High School Principal Ron Dockter publicly criticized how the school board has been conducting its search and in particular said that he felt the four candidates they interviewed Thursday should all have been made known to the public.

Seaks reached out to the Press the following day to clarify the district's stance—he stands by the decision, which was made to keep in accordance to the law and to protect the privacy of the superintendent candidates.

"We're bound to follow (the Century Code). It wasn't like I followed it based on Brent Seaks' interpretation," he said. "I visited with the North Dakota School Board Association."

Seaks said that the Association advised him as to how to proceed to keep in accordance to the law, and to maintain the privacy of the potential candidates, one of the goals of the law. There could be trouble should candidates who are seeking jobs elsewhere be revealed to be job hunting before they've actually gotten an answer.

"The view would be that you would have candidates who wouldn't apply because everybody would find out too soon that they weren't a viable candidate," Seaks said, who added he asked the Association how the district should handle the legality issue. "When you have gotten down to your absolute finalists ... then you call them finalists. Before then you can call them candidates, semi-finalists, because you're not sure they are finalists."

Alexis Baxley, executive director of the School Board Association, said that while she didn't specifically recall speaking with Seaks, she did know he had been in communication with her staff and it was very likely he'd been given advice on the new public records law—he certainly hasn't been the only one to seek guidance on the new law.

"This is kind of the first superintendent hiring season where we're putting this to work. I think it caught a lot of folks by surprise," Baxley said. "Nobody's challenged the law at this point, we don't have any case law on it at this point like we do with other code, but the way that we and other districts are interpreting that is you open the position, you accept applications, all of the applications must be kept confidential."

Seaks said the reason they narrowed the top ten candidates to four, instead of simply selecting three finalists from that roster, was because the school board wanted to have face-to-face interactions with the most promising candidates before naming their final choices.

"We felt like we wanted to give every opportunity to narrow it down," Seaks said. "I guess if we really felt like, if we knew who the finalists were after the (top) ten ... we would have used the word finalist. In this case we weren't certain—we almost had five!"

Describing the process as a balancing act, he said that they had to be mindful of the cost of in-person interviews, which served as part of the reason why the semi-finalist pool wasn't larger than four.

"The truth is, again, not to get too hung up on the number ... we could have called four finalists, we could have called six finalists," Seaks said. "My way of thinking was, I was not willing to use the term finalists ... until I was certain those candidates could and should be the next superintendents of our school district. Until that point we had not had a chance to directly meet with any of the candidates ... so when we had 10 we had no communication with them ... all we had was the video (responses) and their information, letters of recommendation."

With the law being clear that once "finalists" are selected, that information then becomes a matter of public record, not naming the last four candidates as "finalists" specifically, something Seaks said the school board did not do, precluded them from being publicly identified until they could be spoken to in person.

Seaks also said the Association had impressed the dangers of not adhering to the letter of the law.

"Do you want to take the chance at being the first school district sued in North Dakota for this?" Seaks recalled them asking him.

Seaks said that the "law is the law" and criticisms with the Century Code as it stands should be taken up with the legislators who have the power to change it. In the end, Seaks said that the school board is an elected body, the majority of whom have children attending school in the district.

"We were elected and none of us knew (finding a superintendent) would be what we were doing, but we take that responsibility as seriously as you can possibly take it," Seaks said.

A public forum will be held on April 19 to provide the community a chance to meet and ask questions of the candidates, who will be touring the city and schools prior to their final interviews on April 20.

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