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Searching for a new Salt Lake City School District superintendent has cost $15,000 so far, and other bills still are coming in. But school officials say the expense of a nationwide hunt is worth it to make sure the new superintendent can handle the district's increasingly big-city problems.

"We really wanted someone with experience in urban issues," said Mary Jo Rasmussen, school board president. "If you look at Utah and the demographics, Salt Lake is fairly unique in the state."Rasmussen said there were "excellent" candidates from within the state and district who received consideration but the board wanted to cast a wider net to make sure it gets the best person.

Three out-of-state candidates currently are in the running. A fourth finalist, Davis County District Superintendent Richard Kendell, withdrew his name last week.

The Salt Lake board could have received free help from the Utah School Boards Association but opted instead to hire a private consulting firm.

"For Salt Lake, this is the usual route," Rasmussen said, noting that when outgoing Superintendent John Bennion was hired about 10 years ago, the district used Harold Webb & Associates, a Chicago consulting firm. That 1984 search ultimately cost $30,000.

Rasmussen said she understands the district also hired a consultant when hiring Bennion's predecessor.

Winston Gleave, executive director of the Utah School Boards Association, said the organization does superintendent searches for its members for free, except for postage costs.

"We help any way they want us to. We can do a full-blown search, but we have not screened candidates in the past. We feel it's the school board's responsibility," Gleave said.

"Salt Lake didn't ask for help. I sent them a letter and said we'd be available, but each board has its own way of doing things, and each board is free to do what they want," Gleave said.

Rasmussen said the association has been "very helpful" and the board appreciated seeing brochures Gleave sent with his letter. But Rasmussen said, "We really wanted that broader look."

The district hired Karl Plath of PNR Associates in Northbrook, Ill., to conduct the search and paid him in three $5,000 increments. Plath declined comment and referred all questions to Rasmussen.

Other costs, such as airline tickets and housing for candidates brought here for interviews, have not yet been tabulated.

Rasmussen said before Plath began, he sized up the Salt Lake District and interviewed teachers, classified staff (custodians, bus drivers, etc.), administrators and the school board.

"He assessed the strengths and weaknesses of our district and the kind of person we were looking for," Rasmussen said.

She said Plath helped design and send out 500 brochures, which drew 95 active candidates. Thirty-two completed the application process, and Plath screened them to narrow the field to 16. He and two other individuals interviewed the 16 and trimmed the list to seven.

The school board interviewed all seven, four of whom were from outside Utah. After Kendell withdrew his name, the board brought the three remaining applicants back for school-board interviews on separate days.

The board also plans to send two of its members to visit the top finalist's current district this week.

"I have no idea of the entire cost. We still have plane tickets coming in and some additional costs," Rasmussen said.

Was it worth it?

"Yes," she said. "We really wanted that national exposure. Being the capital city and the urban hub of the state, you have to look beyond your borders to bring in the best-qualified person for your district."