The Nebraska Schools Activities Association is undergoing the process of hiring a new executive director for the fifth time since the 2010-11 school year.
That’s right. The average tenure of the person holding the NSAA’s top job for the last 13 years is about two and a half years.
It begs the question: With that kind of turnover, is the NSAA putting itself in the best position to select a new leader this time?
Let’s take a closer look.
Raise your hand if you have heard of the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association. I’m guessing few have, particularly those who live in the Omaha metro or Lincoln.
The NSAA board voted unanimously (8-0) on Oct. 6 to hire NRCSA to assist with the executive director search.
So what is the NRCSA? According to the organization’s website, its purpose is to promote the general advancement of public education in Nebraska, provide a voice or direct influence on behalf of rural schools, and partner with other associations and entities when appropriate.
In this case, you can read the “partner with other associations and entities” as the NRCSA acting as an executive search firm for the NSAA. For instance, it will collect clerical data such as applications and do reference and background checks of candidates.
How was NRCSA chosen as the NSAA’s search firm? Here is where it gets a little complicated.
The NSAA is a public entity but doesn’t use state funding. That means the NSAA isn’t required to make its meeting minutes public. But an NSAA subcommittee interviewed two entities besides NRCSA to perform its search: the Nebraska School Board Association and McPherson Jacobson.
All three firms have Nebraska ties and are education-based.
The only mention from the NSAA that NRSCA was chosen as the executive search firm was in the NSAA’s October meeting minutes. Item No. 16 reads the board voted 8-0 to hire NRSCA to assist with the NSAA executive director search.
So, with hardly anyone looking, the NSAA’s search firm for its top executive is the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association.
Yes, the emphasis is on rural.
It makes one wonder what certain board members or residents of Nebraska’s smaller towns and cities would think if the NSAA’s search were being conducted by the Nebraska Inner Cities Schools Association — which, to be clear, doesn’t exist.
The point is that it’s a matter of perception, and if the NSAA had a recent record of long tenures at its top spot, there might be no reason to be skeptical. But one wonders if an organization that touts itself as providing “a voice of direct influence on behalf of rural schools” is genuinely going to provide a pool of candidates familiar with the entire state — its many rural schools, sure, but also the large metro schools of Omaha and big schools in Lincoln and even Grand Island.
Perception isn’t a problem. I guess if no one knows, the NRCSA is the search firm. But now that some do — those reading this — there seems to be an undeniable perception of bias with a pool weighing toward “rural” candidates. And that’s not good for the NSAA, sometimes derided as an “old boy network.”
Moreover, Mark Norvell, a former NSAA board member and retired Superintendent at Fillmore Central, is listed in the job posting as an assistant consultant, which means he will help NRCSA recruit candidates.
Perusing the NCRSA website does little to ease the perception of bias toward rural Nebraska. The NRCSA has 216 member schools, Educational Service Units, and state colleges in 91 counties across Nebraska. Still, only two of its member schools are in the three most populated Nebraska counties of Douglas, Lancaster, and Sarpy.
Consider this: Of Nebraska’s population of 1,963,692 people, 56%, or 1,102,940 people, live in those three most populated counties. The NSAA doesn’t keep an exact number of students who participate or have previously participated in NSAA activities. Still, it’s reasonable to say at least 50% come from Douglas, Lancaster, and Sarpy counties.
So, it’s fair to ask: Does the NRSCA, while recruiting candidates have the best interests in mind of the students in the three most populous counties or just the other 88?
The next executive director will have plenty of challenges. Shot clocks in basketball gyms are one, but that’s small potatoes.
Issues likely will include Name Image and Likeness, transgender athletes; allowing students to play multiple sports in the same season, the impact of club sports; and the ever-growing issues involving sportsmanship.
Throw in proposals for adding a multiplier or separate classifications for private schools, and things get complicated quickly.
There is no perfect candidate. The point here is that many issues break along those rural vs. urban arguments that often have no solution and are sometimes just a matter of culture.
In my opinion, the ideal candidate needs to be familiar with the small towns and the two larger cities, particularly the Omaha metro area, which is an outlier, but a significant outlier with a vast number of students, at least by Nebraska standards.
Three NSAA board members are showing signs of throwing their hats in the ring. Reading through meeting minutes, current board members Ryan Ruhl (Centura Superintendent), Troy Unzicker (Alliance Superintendent), and Jon Cerny (Bancroft-Rosalie Superintendent) abstained from voting on the executive director search timeline, which reads:
Applications will be accepted until November 14th and interviews will be conducted the week of November 28th with Board approval at their December 7th meeting.
Besides those three, here are a few others who could be potential candidates:
>> Ron Higdon, current NSAA Assistant Director.
>> John Krogstrand, District Director of Athletics, Omaha Public Schools. He served nine years as assistant executive director for the South Dakota High School Activities Association.
>> Chris Loofe, Associate Superintendent of Kearney Public Schools and past President of the Nebraska State Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.
>> Aaron Plas, Superintendent of Columbus Lakeview.
>> Jennifer Schwartz, current NSAA Associate Director. Schwartz is second in command to retiring Executive Director Jay Bellar.
Here’s hoping that whichever candidate gets the job they are with us for longer than two and a half years and are as comfortable dealing with issues in Douglas County as they are in Deuel County.
In response to my inquiries for information for this column, Jack Moles, President of the NRCSA, provided the following answers to questions:
Q: Mark Norvell is the assistant consultant on the NSAA Executive Director search. His experience as a former board member is a good thing. From an outside perspective, it could be seen that the board showed favoritism in selecting NRCSA to help with the search. Do you look at that as a negative or positive?
The question of Mark Norvell being involved in the search is not something I took lightly in suggesting to the NSAA for the reasons you brought up. In the long run, I broached the subject as it made great sense to have Mark, one of our Superintendent Search Consultants, be involved. Mark is a good man, and I know because of his experiences with the NSAA, he wants the best possible candidate to fill the role of Executive Director. Likewise, Dan Bird, retired Supt. from Burwell, and I (retired Supt. from Johnson County Central) are very high on the importance of a great school activities program in our schools. We both want the best candidate to fill the role of Executive Director.
Q: Two-thirds of the population in Nebraska lives in three counties (Douglas, Sarpy, Lancaster) 60 miles from the Missouri River. A limited number (I think the number is two) of the 216 members of NRCSA are in those three counties. Do you think NRCSA represents the entire state enough to handle the clerical responsibilities in assisting the next NSAA Executive Director?
I believe NRCSA can represent the entire state as our consultants (Dan Bird, Mark Norvell) are very conscientious in their work to ensure we help the NSAA Board of Directors get a pool of high-quality candidates, regardless of where they work.
NRCSA has purposefully taken the approach in this search to place the needs of the entire state at the highest priority. This will not be a “rural slanted” search. I have a huge amount of trust in these two gentlemen in that work.
When you look at NRCSA’s role, we have worked at recruiting strong candidates, and we compile all of their application materials as requested by the NSAA Board of Directors. Our consultants will then conduct background checks. All that information will then be shared with the Board of Directors for every individual who submits a complete application.
If the NSAA Board of Directors wants our consultants to place the candidates in tiers based on the background and skills of each candidate, they will do that. In the long run, though, the Board of Directors will select the finalists for the interview. That is a role we do not take on in any searches that we do. For the good of all students in the state and all member schools in the state, the Board of Directors needs to make the best selection possible. I am confident we can help them do that.
I understand the statement about the largest number of students coming from mainly three counties. I would point out that on the other side of this, many member schools are located outside those three counties. The NSAA represents all of those students AND all of those member schools. NRCSA very much recognizes this and wants to help the NSAA Board of Directors be in the best possible position as they choose the Association’s next leader.