Chief Operating Officer for a large public school district

During a challenging time for schools, two Helbling team members joined forces to find a qualified leader with resilience and character.
One of the largest public school districts in the United States contacted Helbling & Associates because of our specific expertise in facilities management, construction, and operations. The district sought a Chief Operating Officer (COO) to oversee its more than 200,000 students, 19,000 staff members, and 220 schools. With facilities management and construction being main priorities for the position, Helbling stood out among other search firms.

Following a virtual interview, the client retained our firm to secure their next leader and replace the interim COO. The district wanted to attract a candidate who was up for a challenge—ready to address the issues of aging buildings, tackle new construction projects and the modernization of classrooms, as well as implement practices surrounding environmental sustainability. In addition to the $250M capital projects budget, the COO controls a $500M operating budget earmarked for food services, transportation, maintenance, and the management of real estate assets. The search began during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning the COO would need to transition to the new role during a tumultuous period of uncertainty when priorities seemed to shift daily.   

The ideal person would be able to perform at a C-suite level, working closely with school leadership, the local community and local government, and a variety of other stakeholders. He or she also had to possess the technical skills and experience to address end-user needs. The district emphasized that the health, safety, and well-being of students and staff members was of utmost importance. 
As expected, Helbling search consultants recommended a national search focused on other large public school districts and select independent schools. In addition, they suggested broadening the outreach to major universities, health systems, third-party facilities management firms, and government agencies at the city and state levels. The client was receptive, looking for candidates of diverse backgrounds and experiences. Helbing connected with historically underrepresented groups through community organizations and professional associations to ensure that the position was visible to many.

Helbling partnered with the Chief Talent Officer, Chief of Staff, and District Superintendent (to whom the COO reports) and interacted frequently with a search committee. They reviewed candidates who were currently employed at a COO level or responsible for oversight of strategic planning, operations, engineering and/or construction of large, multi-building campuses with complex facilities. Titles included Vice Presidents, Directors of Facilities, and Directors of Public Works.
With 10 semi-finalist candidates meeting the technical requirements, the search committee evaluated them in a three-step virtual interview process based on the qualities of leadership, innovation, collaboration, communication, and the ability to advise and build consensus among key groups.
Within 80 days, the search was complete. The school district’s search committee selected a candidate who was the Executive Director of Capital Programs at a large public school district in the Southeastern U.S. and had successfully led the construction of new schools, major renovations, and infrastructure upgrades. He had broken down barriers at the district among departments, resulting in greater transparency and collaboration. He also had 20 years of naval experience, leading facilities and maintenance operations. In fact, a former Navy colleague referred the accomplished professional who was not actively looking for a new position but was attracted to the opportunity to step into a lead role.

Even with many qualifications, what ultimately led to his selection for the role was his positive energy and attitude with a willingness to meet challenges head on. He also has a passion for the mission of the school district and believes in putting students and teachers first.

Upon relocating during a challenging health crisis, the candidate was finally able to tour the facilities and dive into his new position, beginning with a strategic vision for the district and how to get students back into the classroom. A true problem solver, he received a $100M grant from a local university to help fund environmental remediation efforts. He also elevated the environmental team to its own department and appointed a Director and program manager to oversee asbestos abatement.

The new leader rewrote safety protocols and within the facilities department, he established the first-ever appraisal/evaluation process for managers and goals for each employee. Lastly, but most importantly, he has initiated the process of master planning for the school and community and is building positive relationships with senior administration and the board of education.


Learn about Helbling’s search process