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Archive for June 18th, 2008

A perfect example why superintendent searches should be open

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

As a reporter, it’s my nature to want to know more, faster. I do not like to wait for returned calls or e-mails, snail-mail packages or processes to happen.

That last part, that’s probably the most frustrating part of my job especially as it relates to board decisions. Especially when they are major decisions that I feel the public should be able to weigh in on at every step of the process.

Since starting my position as the education reporter in Lafayette, three of my four main public school districts have named new superintendents. All of them used a closed search process that drove me crazy. (The Catholic school system also named a new president, but I’ll give them a closed search since they’re a private entity.)

There was a post recently on Wired Journalists on tips to cover a superintendent search. I posted my advice, which if you care, you can hop over there to read.

What is absolutely most frustrating about these stories was waiting on people to give or leak or otherwise offer information. I had to practically coerce information just to update patrons on the fact that they had received X applications, that they were now to the interviews/finalists phase, that they would be naming someone and when. In one situation, I swear to God, I STILL don’t know how they kept it a secret. Because when I walked into that board room — after finally getting the board to release the name to me about two hours before the late night meeting so I could get it posted and start tracking down background — even the school principals in the back of the room did not yet know who their next leader was going to be. (I’d called many of them to see what if anything they could offer, and ones I know would have told me couldn’t offer any guidance.) I had by process of elimination come to a completely unscientific (but ultimately correct) decision on who it would be.

This invites speculation. In order to arrive at my “unscientific” determination above, I called a lot of wrong numbers. That is, I probably angered a few other superintendents when I called them or their board members to ask about it. Many denied even submitting an application. I’m fine with that. The way I arrived at my correct conclusion, incidentally, was settling on the one person who neither he nor his board members returned my calls.

That brings me to the point I make today. The reason every single board gave for a closed search was to protect the applicants from alienating themselves in their current community. You know what, fine. If you want to casually submit a “what if” application, fine I get that. But personally, I think anyone who agrees to come for an interview — especially if you’re footing the bill for that interview (often over a meal) with tax payer dollars — should be willing to acknowledge at that point they are under serious consideration. Don’t release the whole list. But there is absolutely no reason not to release your finalists.

Do you want to know why you should release your finalists? Here is a picture perfect example from the Indianapolis Star of why an open process serves the community:

Hamilton Southeastern Schools superintendent candidate Donn Kaupke withdrew his candidacy today about an hour before the district was going to publicly announce his candidacy on its Web site.

Kaupke, 71, told the district he didn’t want to be considered after a records search by The Indianapolis Star revealed reports that he had tried to seal public records — a violation of public access laws — and faced a sexual harassment suit during his stint as superintendent at a Florida district.

The district failed to uncover information the newspaper did. The newspaper saved the community the potential problems should this behavior be repeated and even if it weren’t, the embarrassment of this coming to light later.

When you are barely able to get a name hours before a meeting, you can’t do proper searches for those things. And when you do find something in those searches, by the time the question is flagged it’s nearly too late to turn back and save face. Obviously, as that story points out, you should have as many people checking these things as possible:

School Board President Jeff Sturgis said that both the district and the University Team, a group of education experts from the state’s four universities that helped the district find superintendent candidates, conducted a search on Kaupke but never found articles detailing the issues.

“We’re disappointed and surprised by the information that came to us late in the process,” Sturgis said. “We are glad that it did come to our attention before we took action on his contract.”

Finally, aside from the legal issues that might arise, the school board charged with choosing its next leader isn’t just picking the guy who will walk them through the agendas at meetings. They are choosing the visionary who will lead and guide the district and make the difficult decisions that, if not directly then indirectly, impact every child in the community. I understand school board are elected to serve the public will, but I also think this is such an important decision, every parent, tax payer and community member should be able to grill or at least meet the candidates long before someone is signing a contract on the dotted line.

Perhaps I am editorializing about something I shouldn’t. But I had this conversation with every board member during those searches, so my view is hardly a secret. Obviously, it fell on mostly deaf ears. But as this case brings to light, it’s still worth pressing for those names.