Barbara Erwin's resignation just days before she was to take over as Kentucky education commissioner was the capstone to what critics say was a botched search that should have eliminated the controversial superintendent long before she was offered the job.
The Iowa search firm hired by the Kentucky Board of Education to produce a list of candidates should have vetted Erwin more closely and targeted problems more quickly, the critics argue.
And they say board members failed to do their job, ignoring concerns raised by the media and the public over Erwin's resume, which contained an award she hadn't won and a presentation she never made, and her reputation for running roughshod over teachers and administrators when she was a superintendent in Texas, Arizona and Illinois.
"There is no shortage of places where it went wrong," said Bob Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. "The board found out all sorts of things about Erwin too late. But in the end, it was the board's responsibility to make sure that the best person for the job was named commissioner, and that didn't happen."
The board's chairman, Keith Travis, acknowledges mistakes but says the search firm, Ray and Associates, failed to inform the board promptly of Erwin's reputation and dismissed her resume errors as "minor."
"If we had known, I think the board would have taken a different approach," Travis said.
Ray officials counter that the firm did its job, checking everything it was asked to check.
"Our reputation is on the line here. We feel we conducted a solid search, brought them good candidates and they made a choice," said William Newman, national executive director of Ray and Associates.
The cost to taxpayers?
More than $50,000 for a failed search, and the prospect of months more without a permanent commissioner, whose job is to oversee the state Department of Education and implement policies for the state's public schools and their 660,000 students.
Board chooses search firm
The hunt for a new education commissioner began last September when Gene Wilhoit announced he was resigning to become executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, a Washington-based education advocacy group.
The school board interviewed three search firms, settling in December on Ray and Associates, which specializes in searching for school executive leadership and has been recognized as one of the top search firms in the county by The School Administrator, a publication of the American Association of School Administrators.
The contract with Ray called for the firm to identify suitable candidates and screen their qualifications and eligibility. The firm also was to meet with the board's search committee, prepare written recommendations and evaluations for each candidate and "assist the board with a statement of qualifications that the candidates will be expected to meet," according to a copy of the contract obtained by The Courier-Journal through an open-records request.
The board agreed to pay Ray a base fee of $32,000, plus expenses and fees, not to exceed a total of $50,000.
The board also appointed five of its members to a search committee, naming Bonnie Lash Freeman of Louisville as chairwoman.
Newman said Ray and Associates gave the search committee files on 20 to 30 potential candidates in mid-March. On March 28, the committee met in closed session to review those applications and discuss interview questions for the semifinalists.
The files given to the search committee consisted of each candidate's application, resume, letters of reference and a summary report written by the firm, Newman said, with the summary based on interviews conducted with "various sources."
Erwin's file included her application, resume, a reference sheet with eight names, a summary sheet from the firm and 16 letters of reference from former school board members, teachers and principals, according to a copy obtained by The Courier-Journal through an open-records request.
None of the letters, nor any information in the summary report, contained criticism concerning Erwin's tenure.
Newman said the firm did not provide the board with any negative comments regarding Erwin because "there were not any negatives we had a real concern about."
"Any time you are in a top position, you will have people who will support you and you will have people who oppose and criticize you," he said.
The search committee privately interviewed five semifinalists on April 1-3, and then narrowed the field to three finalists. The finalists were brought to Bowling Green April 15-16 to interview with the full board.
The finalists' names were not initially released to the public.
Gov. Ernie Fletcher wrote to the board on April 17 asking it to release the names, and the board complied that day.
Travis said the board had planned on releasing the names all along.
"We just wanted to interview the finalists first and make sure that we still wanted to consider them," he said. "We didn't see a point of naming them when we hadn't even met or interviewed them."
The finalists were Richard La Pointe, deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education Office of Vocational and Adult Education; Mitchell Chester, senior associate state superintendent with the Ohio Department of Education; and Erwin, superintendent at St. Charles, Ill.
Criticism starts to emerge
With the finalists named, Freeman said the board waited several days for public feedback.
That's when it began to hear criticism of Erwin, she said -- some questioning her leadership style in Scottsdale, Ariz., others raising concerns about her tenure in Texas. Freeman said she couldn't remember the specifics. (KSN&C sent brief candidate summary to KBE on April 24 which - KDE's Lisa Gross confirmed - was read and discussed before the board voted.)
"We began receiving all sorts of phone calls and e-mails about the candidates," Freeman said. "Some of it was good; some of it was bad. I forwarded the concerns to the search firm and asked them to look into those things."
Newman said his firm looked into the claims by calling people who knew of Erwin's tenure as a superintendent in Allen, Texas, and Scottsdale.
In a follow-up report given to the board -- obtained by The Courier Journal through an open-records request -- the firm said it had spoken to Worley Stein, a former school board member and board president in Allen, who said "there is absolutely no truth to the negative claims regarding Barbara Erwin's tenure of the district."
No other person was mentioned or interviewed in the Texas follow-up.
Newman said the firm was not able to contact Nancy Cantor, a woman who had criticized Erwin's tenure in Scottsdale. Newman said he spoke with David Goldstaub, a former school board president who was familiar with Cantor.
"We were advised to disregard whatever she (Cantor) says because, inexplicably, she had it in for Dr. Erwin, along with a few of her friends," the follow-up report said.
Cantor could not be reached for comment.
Erwin named top choice
On April 25, the Kentucky Department of Education sent out a news release saying board members had reached a consensus, based on their interviews.
"The board is very pleased to identify Barbara Erwin as its top candidate," Travis said in the release, adding that the board was "most appreciative of the professional services provided by Ray and Associates."
In a recent interview, Travis said the board selected Erwin as its top choice because of her self-confidence and aggressiveness.
"She interviewed extremely well," Travis said. "We looked at the numbers (data) she presented, and it showed that she took large school districts from (scoring at) an average level to a higher level of performance in a very short period of time."
But within days, newspapers around Kentucky began publishing stories detailing Erwin's troubles in her previous jobs.
For example, Eric Kurland and Bob Bernier, the president and vice president of the Scottsdale Teachers Association, told The Courier-Journal in a story published April 26 that Erwin did not work well with teachers and "ruled by intimidation." Kurland said that during Erwin's tenure, the Scottsdale district lost a lot of good teachers, principals and administrators.
"She was like a cancer. She took the life out of our district," Kurland said in the story. "We are now just starting to recover."
Erwin never responded to the claims made by Kurland and Bernier.
On May 1, The Courier-Journal reported that Erwin's resume contained an award she didn't win. The resume she gave the state Board of Education stated that she was named Texas superintendent of the year in 1997 and 1998. But the agency that gave her the award, the Texas Association of School Boards, said she received the top honor only once, in 1997. (First confirmed by Richard Innes at the Bluegrass Institute)
Erwin acknowledged the mistake but said it was simply a "typo."
Travis said the newspaper reports caught board members by surprise. He said he and other board members expected Ray and Associates to alert them to "some of the issues that may have existed with the candidates."
"It would have been nice to know if there was any controversy so that we could have addressed it in the initial interview," he said.
"We wanted a balanced view on what each of the candidates were about, and we really didn't get that," she said.
In response to the news reports, Freeman said she had the search firm check out the errors on Erwin's resume and the firm "admitted there were items they missed and went back to her and asked her for a clarification."
Newman said the search firm checked the inaccuracies and decided they were "minor."
"We took those things very seriously and looked into them, but in the end we felt they were more like misunderstandings," Newman said.
Board looks into concerns
The board decided to continue pursuing Erwin for the job, announcing it would hold a meeting at its annual retreat to ratify an employment contract.
But by that time, board member Doug Hubbard of Bardstown had changed his mind, calling for Erwin to withdraw because of growing concerns about her background. Hubbard said her credibility was suspect.
"The last nine days have been one revelation after another revelation, and I think there is a perception that she cannot overcome," Hubbard told The Courier-Journal in an article published May 5.
The rest of the board continued to support Erwin, with Travis stating publicly that she remained the best candidate.
"I haven't seen any evidence that changes my mind," Travis told the newspaper.
During its May 9 retreat in Bowling Green, the board called an executive session to talk with Erwin about some of the issues that had been raised.
"We went over a lot of the concerns that had been raised, item by item," Travis said in a recent interview. "It was a very stressful, challenging time. She brought in documentation and files with her and answered our questions to the satisfaction of the board at that time."
During a break in its four-hour executive session, the board was informed by The Courier-Journal that Erwin's resume contained a second mistake -- listing a presentation she hadn't made. (KDE, the Courier-Journal, the Herald-Leader and WHAS TV had been informed of the error by Kentucky School News and Commentary during the meeting!)
The resume said Erwin had conducted presentations on school improvement, Advanced Placement and superintendent search processes in 2004 and 2006 during the Illinois Association of School Boards Triple I Conference in Chicago. But an official with the association said Erwin wasn't listed as a presenter for the 2006 conference.
But when board members reopened the meeting, they voted 10-0 to approve a four-year contract with Erwin. Hubbard was traveling and couldn't vote.
Freeman said the board decided to give Erwin the benefit of the doubt and agreed to pay her a base salary of $220,000.
"We felt comfortable with the items and materials she brought in to justify the inaccuracies," Freeman said.
More problems revealed
In June, more inaccuracies on Erwin's resume became public, including an error in the number of years she served on the board of directors for the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce. Her resume also listed her membership on the executive board of the American Association of School Administrators from 1991 to 2000, when she was actually a member of the association's executive committee from 1999 to 2002. (Discovered by the Bluegrass Institute)
In addition, Erwin said in her application for the commissioner job that she had never been involved with pending litigation. However, Erwin was named a defendant in a court case filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix in 2004. (Also discovered by KSN&C.)
Christine Schild accused Erwin and lawyers for the Scottsdale Unified School District of violating her right First Amendment rights by preventing her from speaking on some agenda items at school board meetings. A federal judge dismissed the case; Schild eventually was elected to the school board.
In June, the Illinois state attorney's office cited the St. Charles school board for violating the open meetings act when it met in private on April 11 to vote to give Erwin an additional 85 sick days for every year of her contract since 2005.
Travis and Freeman said the Kentucky board did not become aware of the additional concerns until after they were published in newspapers.
"It seemed like the longer people dug, the more problems that were found," Freeman said. (Incluidng possible fraud.)
Then on July 11, the same day Erwin attended her first board meeting in Frankfort as Kentucky's commissioner-select, The Courier-Journal and other media outlets reported that Illinois police were investigating the disappearance of Erwin's personnel file, which was reported missing July 3 from the St. Charles school district. The investigation is continuing.
Newman said his firm did not know about the missing file until it was reported in the media. But Travis said it was the "icing on the cake."
On July 13, Travis said he spoke to Erwin in the morning about board concerns about her past and that she might not be able to do her job because she would be "so immersed in other issues."
A few hours later, Erwin submitted her letter of resignation, just three days before she was to begin her new job, citing "overwhelming and acute scrutiny" and "continued noise by the media."
Critics, board assess blame
With Erwin's resignation, critics more vigorously questioned whether the school board had failed to properly check out its choice, while board members began pointing fingers at the search firm.
Richard Day, a former Kentucky principal and an education instructor at the University of Kentucky and Georgetown College, blogged frequently about the flawed search process.
"I believe it was perfectly proper for the board to get a firm to assist in the search, but they should have done their own diligence once it got down to the final candidates," Day said. "Even after she was named, there was a quantity of folks out there who were telling them about all these problems surrounding her, but they did not want to listen."
Hubbard said the search firm was partly to blame, and he has called on Ray and Associates to refund the money it was paid. But he also criticized the board leadership, which he said allowed Erwin to be selected.
"We have had a completely chaotic situation for almost 90 days and we need someone to get us out," Hubbard said in an interview. "If the current leadership led us into this problem, we may need someone else to get us out."
Freeman said she does not blame Travis for what happened.
"We expected to get all of the information (about the candidates) from the search firm," she said. "If we had gotten all of the information from the firm, we would have never named (Erwin). We would have named someone else."
Travis said he accepts responsibility for the "circumstances we engaged in," but said he doesn't believe it was the state board's job to double-check resumes and references.
"That was what we paid the search firm to do," he said. "I expected that the further a candidate goes in the process, the more scrutiny there should be. That includes credit history, education verification and, obviously, looking at the resume and making sure that everything checks out."
Newman agreed that that is the search firm's responsibility, and he believes his firm met that duty. He said his firm does not give refunds, but he offered a two-year guarantee and promised to assist the board "in any way we can to help them find the best candidate for the job."
That isn't likely, Travis said. The board's preference is "not to use that firm again."
Erwin Timeline from KSN&C provides evidence that disputes some KBE claims.
The State board meets at 10AM today in Frankfort,