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So what's wrong with Los Alamos?

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By Carol A. Clark

School board members question why only eight applicants responded to their nationwide search for a new superintendent for Los Alamos Public Schools. The number of applicants actually drops to seven, because one applicant was disqualified for submitting incomplete paperwork. “That’s the lowest I’ve ever seen,” consultant Wesley Lane said at Tuesday’s special school board meeting. “The superintendent job just isn’t as attractive as it used to be – the fun is gone.”Lane and the superintendent search committee mailed out 31 packets, 17 of which were in state and 14 out of state, including Arizona, Montana, Washington, Missouri, South Carolina, Utah, Iowa, Alaska, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Arkansas and Illinois. Of the eight who returned applications, six were in-state. The committee received a qualified application from South Carolina, Lane said. LAPS advertised the position, which is being vacated by longtime superintendent James Anderson in June, on websites across the country, including at Harvard and Stanford, Board Vice President Steve Girrens said. “The first thing I thought was, ‘The salary was too low,’ ($130,000) but we listed it as a minimum,” he said. The board puzzled over why so many who inquired about the job didn’t follow through and submit their applications. Board members wondered whether the difference in pay for an assistant superintendent is not enough to take on the pressures that go with the top job.“One thing I have to admit,” Lane, a former superintendent, told them, “this job is not as fun as it used to be.” Los Alamos isn’t alone in its lack of interest from job seekers, Lane said, adding New Mexico school districts as a whole have seen a decline of late.Lane told the board it could have taken two other options besides contracting with him. It could have gone out and found the person it wanted and tried to “steal” him or her. The second option, Lane said, was to pay $50,000 to a headhunter, but there’s still no guarantee the board would end up with the right person.“My way is the low-key, low-dollar approach and we’ve had good success up until a couple of years ago,” said Lane, a former superintendent.District Business manager John Wolf said this morning the district pays Lane a consulting fee of $500 for each half-day meeting he attends and $600 for meetings that run more than half a day. He also receives $85 per diem for overnight stays and $.32 per mile travel allowance. Lane lives in Cloudcroft. He is paid an additional $50 per hour for professional work, $25 for secretarial work and is reimbursed for miscellaneous costs such as copying fees.“In talking with other districts, we are dollars ahead in this approach,” said Human Resource Director James Telles in an interview this morning. “Other districts have hired headhunters with unfavorable results and still had to do so much of the work.”Midway through the search process, Lane wrote a letter to everyone who had responded reminding them to fill out and submit their applications, he said, adding that one comment he received was that the process was “just too cumbersome to deal with.” “If someone’s not interested enough to fill out the forms, then I think that’s a good weeding out process,” Board President Alison Beckman said.Audience member Barbara Phelps asked the board how they marketed Los Alamos. Board member Ken Johnson told her both the district and the Chamber of Commerce included brochures about the town in each application packet that went out.The board is clearly worried because in three short months the district will be without a superintendent. But board member Joan Ahlers appeared somewhat optimistic. “We might find a pearl in these seven,” she said. Three of the seven applicants “might be very good,” Lane said. He advised the board to not only check references listed on the applications but to call people not listed. “If the school board president is not listed on the application as a reference, call the school board president,” he said. “If the applicant is not the superintendent and didn’t list the superintendent, call the superintendent.”But if the board doesn’t find the right person within the current applicant pool, Lane advised them to halt the search, let remaining staff handle things, and resume the search next year.Following Tuesday’s special school board meeting, the board went into executive session to decide on questions to ask the applicants.The board is holding another special board meeting along with a work session at 6 p.m. Thursday at Chamisa Elementary School. Meeting topics include further discussion of the superintendent search, the Trinity Development Project and review of Policy 5127 – Graduation Requirements. Work session topics include a report on student input about teachers and the district’s 20-Year Facilities Renewal Plan. Both meetings are open to the public.