The Fairfax County School Board took the first step on what will be a long path to hiring a new superintendent when it decided Monday to issue a formal request for proposals from headhunting firms.

Board members said during Monday’s work session that they hope to settle on a search firm by October and find a new schools chief by late April.

Fairfax Superintendent Jack Dale has announced his retirement. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Jack D.Dale, who currently leads the school system — the largest in Virginia and the D.C. region — announced earlier this year that he will retire in June 2013.

Headhunters play a key role in shaping searches for superintendents in large, high-profile systems like Fairfax.

Each firm has its own network of contacts and its own philosophy about how a search should be conducted — including how to balance the community’s desire to help choose a new schools leader with applicants’ desire to keep their candidacies confidential.

One firm likely to be in the running is Illinois-based Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, which is among the country’s most prominent school-leader search firms. HYA conducted Fairfax’s 2004 search for Dale and Montgomery County’s search last year for Joshua Starr, who replaced longtime schools chief Jerry Weast.

Many Fairfax board members have said they liked the process Montgomery went through in 2010-2011. On Monday, the Fairfax board directed staff to prepare the RFP based on the text that Montgomery used to hire HYA in the Starr search.

In that case, HYA ran community-input sessions where parents, teachers and others helped develop a profile of the kind of leader they were looking for.

Then the process became secret. The top three finalists did not address the public, but instead met confidentially with 16 community members — including parent advocates and employee union representatives — who offered feedback to the school board.

HYA Board of Directors Chairman William Attea outlined his philosophy of balancing openness with secrecy in an October 2010 article in the School Administrator, a professional journal. Keeping the names of applicants and finalists secret, he wrote, assures that the most qualified candidates will apply.

Attea wrote:

When a superintendent with an effective track record publicly seeks another leadership position, that individual exposes his or her Achilles’ heel. Everyone from renegade board members who may disagree with the direction of the district to parents who have not gotten their way to staff members who may have been disciplined to community members who feel taxes are too high feels free to fire potshots at the superintendent’s loyalty (“the superintendent really isn’t interested in our community; he is just using it as a stepping stone”). They’ll question competency (“she is trying to get out of here because of the mess she has put us in”) and integrity (“he never really was interested in us; he was just trying to build a resume”).

Superintendents are public officials who probably work in the most visible fish bowl in American society. They cannot afford to expose an Achilles’ heel and hope to remain successful as a dynamic leader in this complex role. Hence, the need for confidentiality.

In the same issue of that journal, another search firm head — Terre Davis of Colorado-based TD & Associates — outlined a different philosophy. The process should be more open, Davis wrote, with candidates who are willing to do public interviews if they become finalists.

Davis wrote:

As a search consultant, I consider a request for confidentiality through the final stages to raise a serious concern, as the candidate is not being honest with the current employer. Why not let your board know?...

Searches conducted behind closed doors promote the new superintendent as the board’s superintendent, not the community’s superintendent. As a friend shared with me a long time ago: “Doing a search in a closed atmosphere is not good public policy and is like dancing in the dark.” When a search is played out in an open atmosphere, the community, the district staff and students feel appreciated to have been consulted in the selection process and inclined to commit themselves to getting the new superintendent off to a successful start. Success at the top tends to spread throughout the school district as a whole.

Other search firms undoubtedly have their own philosophies. Fairfax board members will consider them all in the coming months as bids begin to come in.

Fairfax staff had recommended that the board find a search firm via an informal RFP, which generally allows for a quicker process. But informal RFPs are limited to $50,000 and under, and several board members wanted to keep open the possibility of spending more.

“It’s a signal that this is not going to be a cookie-cutter search,” said Board Member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield).

Board members have not yet had a comprehensive discussion about how they’ll go about choosing a superintendent. Daniel G. Storck (Mt. Vernon) pushed Monday to have that discussion “in the next month at a minimum.”