Originally published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 29, 2024

Atlanta Public Schools District 5 board member and Chair Erika Mitchell, shown at a board meeting on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, recently said “the board is determined to select the right individual” for the next superintendent.

When the Atlanta school board announced earlier this month that it would extend its search for a new superintendent, community reaction was split.

Some parents said they felt blindsided, gleaning information about the search from media reports instead of receiving direct communication from Atlanta Public Schools. Others said the extension is a sign board members are serious about picking the right candidate.

The board told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the extension was due to an information breach, but didn’t provide details or say whether candidates’ names were leaked. District 3 board member Ken Zeff shed some light on the decision during a public Q&A session with education nonprofit GeorgiaCAN last week.

“The short answer is that we did not feel that the right fit was in the pool (of candidates) that we looked at,” he said. “So we want to take a beat and reexamine … to be more intentional around soliciting candidates for the role because we don’t want to get it wrong.”

The search is a closed process, meaning candidates’ names are kept confidential. Districts often conduct closed searches to attract a bigger field of candidates. People are more likely to apply if they don’t have to worry about their current employers finding out, said John Zauner, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association.

“The dynamics may change at home before you even make a decision (about a new job),” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with exploring other options.”

Mark Elgart is the president and CEO of Cognia, which accredits APS and many other school districts. He said if a leak was the cause of the breach, it’s not unusual.

“There’s so many people involved (in the search), from the search firm, to the candidates, to the school system, to potentially people outside of the school system and community … like other educators who get calls from the search firm to talk about various candidates,” he said. “So there’s a lot of people in this confidential bubble.”

Elgart said the school board took “the right ethical step” in extending the search process once the breach was discovered. He added that superintendent searches are tough right now because the field of qualified candidates is small.

“Part of that is the demographics now of baby boomers who have left the profession and have retired and there’s a gap there, and the replacement group has yet to really mature into being able to lead … an urban school system.”

During a recent public meeting, APS parent Deonne Malick El-Deiry said a lack of communication from the district about the search was causing rumors to fly. She said parents have a lot of unanswered questions.

“Are we sticking with (search firm) HYA?” El-Deiry asked about Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, the search firm the board hired in October. “What is the (search) timeline? Are the candidates still the candidates or are they not? Then … there’s the breach. How does that impact the search?”

District 6 board member Eshé Collins, who hosted the meeting, said the board hasn’t set a new timeline yet.

“The reality is … a lot of the things that you raised … still (have) question marks next to them,” Collins said.

The board has extended interim Superintendent Danielle Battle’s contract to Dec. 31, indicating it could take until the end of the year to have a leader in place.

Like El-Deiry, other parents have also wondered if APS will stick with HYA. Zeff was asked during the GeorgiaCAN event.

“I don’t have the answer to that question yet,” he replied.

The board’s public relations firm said HYA is “still engaged” in the search. They declined the AJC’s request for an interview with board Chair Erika Mitchell.

Dawn Brockington-Shaw, an APS parent and member of a community panel that will review the final candidates, said the board’s decision to slow down is a good sign.

“I think it was actually really brave to say, ‘We need to put the brakes on this a little bit,’” she said. “The sense that I’m getting is that they really want someone (for superintendent) that people can be happy with.”

About the Author

Martha Dalton is a journalist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution writing about education and the Atlanta Public Schools system. Martha was previously a senior education reporter at WABE, Atlanta’s NPR affiliate.