BERKELEY -- Third time's the charm.
At least that's what community members engaged in the search for a school superintendent are counting on.
After two misses -- the first when the school board rejected the finalists, and the second, when the top contender withdrew after blistering public criticism over his perceived homophobia and top-down management style -- the community is looking for a superintendent that's a good fit for the diverse and demanding community. Also important is finding one who will stick around for more than a couple of years.
This time school trustees picked Cedar Rapids, Iowa firm Ray & Associates to recruit and scrutinize candidates.
"They're a different sort of firm" than Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, the consultants that conducted the previous two searches, School Board Director Karen Hemphill said. She said that Ray & Associates is one of the largest and most thorough firms of its type in the country.
The district is starting the search earlier in the year than previously, she added.
Hemphill said she measured the firm's success by the fact that superintendents the firm has recruited remain with their districts after several years.
The current hiring process includes extensive public input. Consultants held three community meetings last week and met with various groups including school personnel, Parent Teacher Associations, special education parents and Berkeley High
The group that gathered Saturday morning at school district offices on Bonar Street expressed particular concern about the gap in school success between Caucasian students and students of color.
Addressing the achievement gap should not be "just rhetoric," said Jenny Mulholland-Beahrs, a teacher trainer whose husband is a Berkeley High teacher. The candidate should demonstrate support for early childhood programs and have experience addressing the "disproportionate number of kids of color being suspended and expelled," she said.
Irma Parker, Berkeley High parent liaison, said she wants a superintendent who will promote fairness and respect toward employees.
Participants at the Saturday forum said they were impressed with Ray & Associates. "This firm seems to have a passion and seems to be organized and know the work and know the issues and will be more successful this time in finding the true candidate," Parker said.
Mark Coplan, district spokesman, said parents at a March 1 community forum were so impressed with consultant Ricardo Medina that they asked him to apply for the superintendent position.
But Medina said in an interview after the Saturday meeting, that as an employee of the recruiting firm, it would be inappropriate to apply.
The Voice subsequently learned from a Google search that Medina was fired in 2011 from a superintendent position in the Coachella Valley Unified School District.
In a phone interview Medina acknowledged the firing and explained the "board politics" involved: The superintendent serves at the pleasure of the board. Medina said he was hired in Coachella with the support of three of five board members, but after new elections, he was supported by two.
"I was a casualty," he said. "It's the nature of the business."
Medina said similar scenarios repeat across the country, leading to superintendents who work relatively short stints.
He underscored that he has the confidence of Ray & Associates, with which he consulted before, during and after his two years at Coachella.
Asked whether the firing was an issue for Berkeley, School Board President Leah Wilson emailed: "We are aware of the circumstances around Mr. Medina's separation from the Coachella District, and do not see any reason for concern."
In addition to meeting with the community, Ray & Associates' consultants met with teachers.
Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Cathy Campbell stressed her organization's position opposing candidates trained at the Broad Academy. Edmond Heatley, the candidate the community rejected, was trained by Broad.
They "promote a business model," tie merit pay to testing and support charter schools, Campbell said, adding that the BFT wants a superintendent who has been both a teacher and a principal and someone who will recruit and retain more teachers of color.
Campbell said that while there are no guarantees, the process is likely to succeed this time. "I think our community is more engaged" she said. "There's a better chance of avoiding a miscue."