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Superintendent search narrowed to 4 candidates: Interviews to take place this month

RESERVE — The search for the next St. John the Baptist Parish superintendent of public schools is winding down, with four finalists moving to round one of interviews.

If all goes according to schedule, a new superintendent could be hired by July 1. At Thursday’s School Board meeting in LaPlace, board members were asked to select their five preferred candidates from a list of 10 finalists chosen and screened by national superintendent search firm JG Consulting.

In order to move to the interview round, candidates were required to secure at least six votes, representing a majority of the 11-member School Board.

The four finalists are Jawan Brown-Alexander (nine votes), Dr. Kelli Joseph (nine votes), Dr. Lynett Hookfin (eight votes) and Dr. Bernard Chandler (seven votes).

Dr. Kelli Joseph was a finalist in the superintendent search in November 2019 but did not secure a majority vote from School Board members to make it to the top 3 at the time. That search process was scrapped later in the month as Board members opted to switch to a national search to find a larger pool of candidates.

Joseph currently serves as the superintendent for St. Helena Parish Schools. The Louisiana Association of School Executives named her 2020 Louisiana Superintendent of the Year in late 2019. Joseph is a resident of St. John the Baptist Parish and a 1990 graduate of East St. John High School. According to a representative of JG Consulting, she is the only candidate who has graduated from a school in the parish.

School Board members were impressed with Dr. Jawan Brown-Alexander, the current chief of schools for New Schools for New Orleans. Prior to joining the New Schools team, Brown-Alexander worked as a director of curriculum and instruction at Lake Forest Charter School. She is a graduate of Southern University.

Dr. Lynnett Hookfin had the third-highest number of votes. She is a deputy superintendent for Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools. Her longtime career in education has included roles as principal and assistant superintendent.

The fourth finalist, Bernard Chandler, is the instructional superintendent for Birmingham City Schools. His district is comprised of more than 40 schools and 20,000 students, and he has been successful as a principal.

The first round of interviews will be conducted this month. A second round of interviews is tentatively planned for the two finalists from round one. A representative of search firm JG Consulting said the second round would help the School Board become better acquainted with the candidates while allowing time for in-depth background checks.

According to the firm, all candidates have been made aware that the base salary for superintendent of St. John Parish Public Schools will be $165,000.

Board members have placed emphasis on finding a visionary leader with the interpersonal and management skills to cultivate an effective executive staff. The superintendent should be able to set clear expectations and have an unwavering commitment to supporting inclusion and equity.

JG Consulting opened the application process on April 25 and closed it on May 25. Zoom meetings were conducted during this time. The application process yielded 36 candidates, including one who later accepted another job. Using the School Board’s preferred attributes and qualifications, JG Consulting screened the candidates and placed the 10 most favorable into a Group A. The 10 candidates in Group A were presented at Thursday’s meeting.

Board members received information about the candidates on Tuesday, June 9.

Not all School Board members felt confident about narrowing down the finalists Thursday night. Board member Ali Burl questioned the search process and why the firm did not present information on all of the applicants.

“We had some issues with the last firm, but they told us everything that was going to happen on this day and whatnot. This has not been a transparent process,” Burl said.

The JG representative responded that it was the firm’s responsibility to recruit, screen and qualify the applicants to streamline the process.

Board member Keith Jones has been leery about the search process since the majority of the School Board voted in March to spend an additional $25,000 on a national search, adding to the $17,000 in superintendent search expenses incurred in the fall.

“These 10 names are being shoved down our throats. We should have at least seen (the other candidates’) background and information,” Jones said.

“This is the most important decision we will make, and I think the process is being rushed.”

Jones added that the Google search results he found on three of the 10 candidates presented by JG Consulting were “very disturbing” but declined to share his reasoning behind that statement.

Board member Gerald Keller spoke up to get the process moving. He said, “We’re going to do the same thing we did in the first search, play around, play around, school will start, and we won’t have a superintendent.”

The School Board ultimately concurred and voted to move forward with the process. Other candidates presented at the meeting who did not garner a majority vote of the Board included the following: Dr. Dana Arreola, school support officer for Houston ISD; Dr. Jermaine Dawson, area executive director for Fulton County Schools in Georgia; Dr. Tosh Downey, director of advocacy at the Memphis Education Fund; Marcus Jackson, director of curriculum instruction for Calcasieu Parish Schools; Dr. Elizabeth Duran Swinford, principal at M.E.T.S. Charter School in New Jersey; and Dr. Antwan Wilson, professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University.