Consulting firm picked to search for Pittsburgh schools chief lacks history

The firm that was hired by the board of the Pittsburgh Public Schools to lead the search for a new leader for the district has no documented history that it ever completed a superintendent search.

In fact, the only superintendent search that Perkins Consulting Group was involved in was for a small school district in New York state, where the board ultimately decided to promote its deputy superintendent, according to documents provided to the district by the consulting firm’s head, Brian Perkins.

His firm was hired last month by the Pittsburgh board in a 5-4 vote at a rate not to exceed $100,000. Board directors Thomas Sumpter, Regina Holley, Carolyn Klug, Terry Kennedy and Sylvia Wilson approved the measure.

Board member Cynthia Falls voted no and outgoing directors Mark Brentley, Sherry Hazuda and Bill Isler abstained.

Ms. Holley said she and Mr. Sumpter met Mr. Perkins at a conference for the Council of Urban Boards of Education and recommended his consulting firm to the board when then-superintendent Linda Lane announced plans to retire from the district in September. Ms. Holley and Mr. Sumpter said they were “impressed with his credentials.”

Mr. Sumpter said he did not contact any of Mr. Perkins’ references and did not know if any other board members did so.

“I don’t think that was carried out by any specific person,” he said. “I guess it comes down to Dr. Perkins’ unique skill set that he brings and us being satisfied with that.”

The board also did not distribute a request for proposals for other potential candidates, raising questions among some community members and stakeholders about the amount of input and participation the public will have in the hiring decision.

Last month, the A+ Schools advocacy group held a community session about the superintendent search process and released a statement afterward with three key points: that the board will have a difficult job in selecting a new superintendent; that stakeholder input is essential; and that the process matters.

After the hiring of Perkins Consulting Group, A+ spokesman James Fogarty said the organization had some concerns about the move.

“We are glad to see they are moving ahead with the process, but we have questions,” Mr. Fogarty said. “We’re not sure how Mr. Perkins was selected and whether other firms were considered.”

Mr. Perkins could not be reached for comment.

According to his biographical material, he is director of the Urban Education Leadership Program at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City, has served two terms as national chair for the Council of Urban Boards of Education. He was also a visiting professor at the University of Pretoria in South Africa for more than a decade.

His biography touts consulting stints in school districts around the world, including Brazil, Israel and China. Included in a list of references submitted to the board were four school districts for which Mr. Perkins has conducted services over the years, including board professional development and curriculum redesign. However, Mr. Perkins did not complete a superintendent’s search for any of those districts.

Denise Baines, former board president of the Wyandanch Union Free School District, a small suburban New York City district on Long Island, said Mr. Perkins assisted the board with one superintendent’s search when the board “changed its mind” and decided instead to hire its deputy superintendent, Pless M. Dickerson. Much of Mr. Perkins’ other work with the board involved faculty training, revamping the district’s outdated curriculum and “mentoring” the newly appointed superintendent, she said.

Mr. Dickerson, who was also listed as a reference and currently serves as board president for the Westbury Union Free School District, described Mr. Perkins as an educational consultant who is “extremely resourceful” with a “valuable knowledge base.” His school district has about 5,200 students, the majority of whom are Hispanic.

The largest student body on the list of references had 14,000 students across two districts governed by the U.S. Virgin Islands Board of Education.

Josie Smith-Wright, who is a member and former board president of the Gonzales Independent School District, said Mr. Perkins mostly conducted workshops and training sessions for the Texas Caucus of Black School Board Members, of which she is a member.

Mr. Isler, the former board president of Pittsburgh Public, served on the board for 16 years. He said it is “critical” for search firms to have extensive experience conducting a national superintendent search for large urban school districts.

“You have to get someone to do the search who you’ve properly vetted, someone who everyone knows, trusts and agrees upon,” he said. “You’ve also got to be transparent, and be upfront and honest with the community about what you’re doing, who you’re choosing and why.”

Mr. Sumpter said Mr. Perkins’ contract has not yet been finalized.

“We’re developing a process and intend for that to be the best we can come up with because it’s important to do what’s best for our children,” Mr. Sumpter said.

Source: Clarece Polke / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette