by DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & even parents sat at short tables in the Central Valley School District's Kindergarten Center last Thursday evening and discussed who they want to lead their district for the next several years. Superintendent Mike Pearson is retiring at the end of this school year.

"We need a Renaissance man," said one man. "Someone from outside with the nerve to say, 'This is the way we're going to go.' We have a good core educational system. We just need a strong, charismatic leader."

The others nodded. They agreed the new leader needs to be a strong communicator, someone who is more visible in the community.

"We like one-on-one in this district. Someone you can walk up to and talk to," said one woman. She referred to Wally Stanley, the superintendent before Pearson. "He was in the schools so often that even the kids knew who he was."

Taking notes was Dennis Ray, whose Liberty Lake-based Northwest Leadership Associates was hired by the district to find superintendent candidates. Ray led this and a dozen other meetings with parents, teachers, principals and others with a stake in the school district. He says more than 200 people filled out surveys on the district's Website.

More and more, school districts are turning to consulting firms when they need to search for superintendents. The pool of good candidates is getting smaller and smaller, says Jerry Gross from Chicago-based Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, the company hired by the Spokane School District to find Brian Benzel's permanent replacement. (Nancy Stowell is the district's interim superintendent.)

"Ninety percent of superintendent searches are private," says Gross. "This board [Spokane] has insisted on an open search. It's a tradition here, and they wanted it that way."

Gross says he warned the board that openness might make it harder to attract good candidates.

"Many superintendents don't want their current districts to know they're looking," he says. So when he approaches potential candidates, he usually does so by phone, avoiding e-mail so that those candidates can't be tracked electronically.

Gross says 15 or 16 people have already expressed interest in the Spokane job. During the next month, his firm will interview some of those and contact others. He hopes to bring two or three candidates to Spokane for interviews at the end of February. The school board hopes to introduce the new superintendent on March 26.

Central Valley's schedule is about a month behind that. Ray says he expects the board will hire a new leader around May 1.

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