Jennifer Cheatham announced earlier this week that she would step down as superintendent of Madison Public Schools to join the faculty at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Following Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham’s decision to resign from her post at the Madison Metropolitan School District at the end of August, the Madison School Board now has a tall task ahead of them: finding a new leader for the state’s second-largest school district.

“I’ve always held the view that the most important work of a board is the hiring of a superintendent,” said former School Board member James Howard, who served as the board’s president when Cheatham was hired. “It’s still my view today, and the board is going to have to decide how to move this work forward."

School Board President Mary Burke agreed, saying in an email that hiring a superintendent “is the most important job a board has, and we are committed to doing so thoughtfully and together with our community.”

Here are some things the School Board will have to consider as it navigates this process.

How are superintendent searches typically done?

The process a district goes through to find a new superintendent varies tremendously across individual school districts, according to former MMSD Superintendent Art Rainwater. In some rural districts, a board can conduct the search itself by soliciting applications or receive help from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. In urban districts like Madison, however, it’s much more common for boards to hire a consulting firm to conduct the search.

Ray & Associates, a firm that specializes in executive leadership hires, was selected by the board when it last searched for a new superintendent.

Rainwater and Howard said firms handle advertising and collecting applications, in addition to doing an initial screening of applications before sending a narrower list of candidates to the board to consider. The board typically receives all the applications, however, so it’s not limited to however many candidates made it through the initial screening process.

“Most firms also come into the community and conduct either surveys, town halls, or some other type of methodology to gain community input about what the community is looking for,” said Rainwater, who was MMSD's superintendent from 1999 to 2008 and is now a professor at UW-Madison’s School of Education.

What do School Boards look for in a superintendent?

Before conducting the search itself, the School Board must determine what attributes and characteristics it is looking for in its next superintendent.

“For example, when we brought Jen in, we wanted a curriculum expert, someone who really knew how to use curriculums well,” Howard said. “The board will have to determine who is the person that you want?”

How long does the process take? Who leads in the meantime?

Conducting a thorough process takes time. Jane Belmore, who served as interim superintendent between former Superintendent Dan Nerad and current leader Cheatham’s terms, held the post for a year.

The board will first have to decide who to hire as an interim superintendent before shifting gears to finding the permanent replacement. Rainwater said that typically that decision comes down to first deciding whether to hire internally or externally. He noted that some retired superintendents often find a second career by working in interim posts.

“We have just begun that process,” Burke said in an email. “As we’ve expressed, we are interested in the interim being an internal candidate. We have strong team members and we believe several candidates we believe could do the job well. We plan to interview before making decisions.”

The interim superintendent would begin at the start of the 2019-20 school year. Burke said the board has not discussed how long the eventual interim superintendent would serve or what his or her contract will look like.

The Cap Times cited a source on Wednesday that said the board was eyeing current chief of elementary schools Nancy Hanks as a potential interim superintendent. Burke and other School Board members have emphasized since that report was published that no decision has been made, though it would likely come by the end of the month.

“I think the most important quality we are looking for in an interim superintendent is stability,” School Board member Cris Carusi said. “I don’t think it really matters as much if it’s an internal or external candidate ... we’re going to want someone who can provide stability.”

Carusi noted that she hopes the board can engage in an open process when selecting a new superintendent.

“I really hope we have a transparent, public process for choosing a new superintendent where we are able to get input from our staff and our community,” Carusi said. “We absolutely have to do that for our superintendent process and I think on some level for the interim selection process as well."

Will the interim superintendent eventually be hired as permanent superintendent?

Rainwater was hired as an interim superintendent before the board voted to hire him after conducting its search process. However, whether to have an interim superintendent considered for a long-term post is something the School Board will have to decide as it crafts the characteristics of who it wants to hire as the new district leader.

“When we did our search, we didn’t want the interim to be a person to be considered for the full job,” Howard said. “That’s something the board will have to decide. When we did it six years ago, we determined we didn’t want that person to be in consideration for the job, but that does not have to be the case this time.”

What are the next steps the board will take?

The School Board hasn’t had much time to get the process started yet. Cheatham told board members of her decision to resign during a closed session meeting on Monday, and a press conference was held on Wednesday announcing the decision to the public. The board has another closed session meeting set for May 13, where the topic will likely be discussed further. 

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Education Reporter

Negassi Tesfamichael is the local education reporter at The Cap Times. He joined the paper in 2018. He previously worked as an intern at WISC-TV/ and at POLITICO.