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Behind closed doors, the competition for Fairfax County’s next top school administrator is heating up. A first round of interviews is being conducted this month. Next month, the candidate field will be narrowed. A final candidate could be named soon, school officials said.

“We’ve gone through a first-round of [in-person] interviews of those who applied, and we expect to have a second-round of interviews of semi-finalists in April,” said School Board Chair Ilyrong Moon (At-large). He said the School Board could have a preliminary decision, but not a final hire, as early as the first Saturday in April.

The Fairfax County School Board is interviewing candidates to replace outgoing Superintendent Jack D. Dale, who is retiring after nine years with the county. Dale announced his plans to retire in September 2011. Dale became superintendent in July 2004, previously serving as Frederick (Md.) County Public Schools from 1996 to 2004. During that time, he was named Maryland’s superintendent of the year.

His replacement is scheduled to take the reins July 1.

“From my perspective being a candidate [for superintendent] and hearing from others, Fairfax County is viewed as being a very high-quality school system by teachers on through the ranks,” Dale said of the appeal Fairfax County’s top schools job has for prospective candidates. He said the school system’s size and quality can be intimidating for job candidates.

Each year FCPS receives between 15,000 and 30,000 applications for employment.

Of his experience interviewing for superintendent Dale said, “It’s not so much hard as intense. It’s not unusual toward the end of the process to feel like you’re being interviewed from dawn ‘til dusk ...You’re always on-point. There’s no off the record.”

One of the key differences between interviewing for superintendent in Fairfax County as opposed to Frederick County or elsewhere, he said, was the number of School Board members.

FCPS has 12 school board members, while many districts have five or nine. The reason for the number is historic, from when the School Board became an elected body rather than an appointed one in 1996. Of the 12 members, nine represent districts and three are at-large.

The higher number of members, Dale said, means questions coming from more people.

Dale said he is not involved with the superintendent search. School Board members have met during the year in closed-session meetings to discuss candidates, interview objectives and more with a consultant hired to manage the nation-wide search.

“The biggest thing that I can recall was they were looking for someone who could collaborate with the community, the Board of Supervisors, the PTAs, the business community and all of our stakeholders,” Dale said of his interview process.

Current School Board members have voiced a similar interest during the 2012-13 superintendent search.

For most of the School Board, this year’s superintendent search is their first hiring of a school CEO.

Chairman Moon, however, has been involved in selecting the past two superintendents, Dale and his predecessor, Daniel Domenech, who served seven years atop Fairfax County Public Schools.

“The first time I did [the superintendent search] when we hired Dr. Dan Domenech, the public was allowed to come in and assess the candidates,” Moon said. “That had some negative consequences.”

This included a candidate withdrawing from the process after meeting with the public. Another candidate was dismissed from her current job because of the public job search.

“The problem with the open search like the one I went through is being a sitting superintendent [which most of the candidates for FCPS are]. If you get the job, great. If not...,” Domenech said, adding that few people in the job market would want their current employer to know they are scouting out new jobs. “If you’re looking to get the best candidate out there who maybe is a sitting superintendent and a successful sitting superintendent, you’re not going to get them if it’s public.”

Before coming to Fairfax County, where Domenech still lives, he previously held the superintendent job in Suffolk County, New York. Domenech is now executive director of American Association of School Administrators, an advocacy group that represents superintendents and public education in issues discussed by Congress. He has held his position at AASA since July 2008. Before then, Domenech was a senior vice president for National Urban Markets with McGraw-Hill Education, a textbook publisher.

Because of lessons learned during Domenech’s public search, Moon said, the public was not invited to participate in Dale’s hiring.

“This time, we have a hybrid of those two [processes],” Moon said. A community panel is aiding the process this year, allowing a semi-public, but still confidential interview process. Panel membership includes parents, Northern Virginia Community College leaders, George Mason University officials, the local chamber of commerce, Fairfax County Federation of Civic Associations, teachers, students and a principal, Moon said.

In addition, the school system has conducted more than 50 input sessions, community forums, meetings with individuals and groups in an effort to compile wanted characteristics and questions for superintendent candidates.

“Today, the field [for superintendent] is relatively small,” Domenech said. “There are very many administrators who don’t want to be superintendent. I say we’re the highest-paid migrant worker.” He said the average tenure of a superintendent is about 3.5 years.

“Fairfax has broken that model because of the kind of quality district it is,” he said. “Generally, when superintendents go to Fairfax, it tends to be their last job. ... It’s probably the best superintendency that they’ve ever experienced. ... At the same time, it’s no cakewalk. It’s a very demanding job with a very demanding community.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com