After coming up empty-handed this summer in the search for Nashville’s next school chief, city leaders are revealing specifics of their new strategy for finding the best fit for the fast-changing district.

Newly elected Mayor Megan Barry, who pledged to make public education one of her top priorities when she took office in September, joined Metro Nashville’s Board of Education on Monday to announce a task force of 17 community leaders to jumpstart the city’s second search. This time around, the stakes are higher than ever in finding a school director who can propel Tennessee’s second-largest district forward in the face of low test scores, budget challenges, and often contentious debates over the best path forward.

The reset comes on the heels of a disappointing national search led earlier this year by a Chicago-based firm that pocketed the $42,000 consulting fee but was short on delivering many viable candidates. Ultimately, the Nashville board extended an offer to a neighboring director, Williamson County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney, who decided to stay put in his more affluent suburban enclave.

A replacement for recently retired director Jesse Register was supposed to begin work this summer, but would start next summer under the new timeline announced Monday. Chris Henson, the district’s longtime chief financial officer, is serving as interim director.

After the first search came up dry, the school board opted to wait until Nashville’s new mayor was elected before rebooting the quest in consultation with the city’s new leader.

The task force will be co-chaired by the mayor’s office and the Nashville Public Education Foundation and is to make recommendations to the board in January. From there, the board will choose a “formal search apparatus” and launch a national recruitment push to complete the process.

“I applaud the board’s decision to engage the full community in this search. I am optimistic that this diverse group of community leaders can work closely together to identify, recruit and hire a game-changing leader who will catapult the city’s public schools forward,” Barry said in a joint press release with the board.

Sharon Gentry, school board chairwoman, said the new approach should lead to new choices who are top-shelf leaders. “While the board must ultimately make the hiring decision, for us to successfully hire the kind of leader we all want, we must put our collective best foot forward as a city and a community,” she said.

The new director will face a bevy of challenges in running the nation’s 42nd largest district, with 86,000 students, more than 72 percent of whom are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

When Register took the helm in 2010, the district was on the brink of state takeover for low performance. Since then, the school system has made strides, but still struggles to get most of its students up to grade level and meet the needs of its changing student population — which includes more English language learners than ever. State takeover still looms over some of the district’s schools, although now in the form of the Achievement School District, Tennessee school turnaround agent. And the polarizing debate over the expansion of charter schools, their financial impact on traditional public schools, and their role in raising the overall level of achievement in the city, often frames local conversation on education.

This time around, the board is banking that high-level community input can yield an experienced education leader who can be a consensus-building agent for school improvement.

When the panel begins its work this month, its research will be guided by three questions:

  1. What does Nashville need? What are Nashville’s biggest challenges? How does it stack up against other cities/districts? What does this point to in terms of the profile of an effective director of schools?
  2. Who might fit that profile? Are there “bright spots” across the country in terms of districts or systems achieving significant gains or innovations in these areas?
  3. Are we competitive enough to attract high-caliber candidates? How does Nashville’s compensation package compare with like-minded or -sized districts? Are there other things Nashville can do to make the position more attractive?

Members of the search advisory committee are:

  • David Briley, vice mayor
  • Sheila Calloway, juvenile court judge
  • Bill Carpenter, chairman and CEO, LifePoint Health
  • The Rev. V. H. Sonnye Dixon, Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship
  • Marc Hill, chief policy officer, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce
  • Shannon Hunt, president and CEO, Nashville Public Education Foundation
  • Erick Huth, President, Metropolitan Nashville Education Association
  • Kristin McGraner, founder and executive director, STEM Prep
  • Janet Miller, CEO, Colliers International
  • Rich Riebeling, chief operating officer, mayor’s office
  • Mark Rowan, president, Griffin Technology
  • Renata Soto, executive director, Conexión Américas
  • Stephanie Spears, president, MNPS Parent Advisory Council
  • The Rev. Ed Thompson, Nashville Organized for Action and Hope
  • Robbin Wall, principal, McGavock High School
  • Ludye N. Wallace, president, NAACP Nashville
  • David Williams, vice chancellor, Vanderbilt University