Frederick County begins a national search for a new school superintendent this week amid suggestions by some officials that the winning candidate should come from the school system's back yard: its acting superintendent, Linda Burgee.
This week, the school board's new search consultants will ask students, school staff members, local political and business leaders and residents in the 40,000-student district what qualifications they think are most important in a schools chief. The school board will make its choice in mid-May.
The search, which will include national advertising, mailings, trade-conference appearances, focus groups and scores of meetings, will cost $18,000 in consulting fees, plus expenses. "We want to be sure everything is done properly and all candidates are treated equally," said school board President Linda Naylor.
However, she said, "I still think it would be a bonus to have someone from Frederick County."
Over several decades, Frederick has transformed from a sleepy, small town to one of Washington's fastest-growing suburbs.
Burgee's few months at the helm have given her candidacy sheen. She is a lifelong Frederick resident with strong support on the county board.
At a public meeting to introduce the search consultants Sept. 22, County Commissioner Mike Cady, the liaison between the school board and the Frederick Board of Commissioners, said he had hoped that Burgee would be offered the job without a search. Despite rules asking that candidates not be identified, other speakers also mentioned Burgee favorably.
Cady said that at commissioners' meetings and in e-mails from constituents, he had essentially been asked, "Why are we going through this rather expensive and time-consuming task when we have a homegrown person with a wonderful reputation and credentials?"
"I don't have a very good answer for those people because I agree with them," Cady said.
Burgee was appointed in May, after Superintendent Jack D. Dale resigned to take the helm of Fairfax County's 166,000-student school system. Dale, who spent most of his career in Washington state, was chosen after a search that the school board conducted by itself. Dale was generally popular, but he clashed with the fiscally conservative county commissioners, who wanted line-item control over the school budget.
The school board selected the Maryland Association of Boards of Education's search service to find a replacement. With help from the consultants, the board will choose three or four finalists in April and invite each for a day of meetings in the school district. Maryland law requires superintendent contracts to begin July 1. Superintendents serve four-year terms.
Bea Gordon, a former member of the Montgomery County Board of Education and a past president of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, will lead the search.
"While we represent boards of education, we're different than headhunters, who represent their own candidates" and cost more, Gordon said.
"Internal applicants . . . will go through the process the same as any applicant," Gordon said in an interview. She said she tells school boards that if the interim chief is their choice, "Save yourself a lot of time and energy and money.
"But if you want to consider that person but also want to see who else is out there, then go through the process. I think that's where Frederick is."
In 2003, Gordon led a contentious search that ended in the hiring of Andre J. Hornsby in Prince George's County, whose 140,000-student system is plagued by performance problems and administrative infighting. At the time, some state lawmakers griped that Hornsby, whose experience included two years as school superintendent in Yonkers, N.Y., lacked the national stature for the job.
Gordon said the Prince George's choice was a "tougher sell" than she expects in Frederick County. Frederick, which has one-third the number of students that Prince George's or Montgomery County has, "is a pretty strong school system that doesn't have the serious kinds of" problems found in such urban districts as Prince George's, she said.
The job also pays less. Dale's most recent contract was for $157,000 in salary, plus benefits. His new job pays a base salary of $237,000. In Montgomery, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast's salary tops $237,000, and in Prince George's, Hornsby makes $250,000.
Naylor said she favors a local choice for superintendent because "someone new would have to develop the relationships within the community."
Burgee, 49, attended Frederick County public schools, and so did her husband and three children. She has worked for the school system since 1976. She joined the administrative ranks about a year ago as associate superintendent overseeing the county's 35 elementary schools. Before that, she served six years as an instructional director, training and supervising the system's elementary school principals.
Cady, who calls himself the president of Burgee's fan club, said, "I think a short-term contract would give Dr. Burgee a chance to show her skills." If things did not work out, he said, "they could go to a nationwide search later."
"I do appreciate Commissioner Cady's support," Burgee said. But she said that if she's selected after a nationwide search, "I would feel I'd gone through a competitive process and truly earned the position, as opposed to them doing something that was more expedient."
Public forums on the superintendent search will be 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at the school system's headquarters, 7630 Hayward Rd. in Frederick.
Staff writer Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.