about this sitesee Meranda's resumesee clips and work sampleskeep in touch

A perfect example why superintendent searches should be open

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.

5 Responses to “A perfect example why superintendent searches should be open”

  1. Kyle Hansen Says:

    Great post.

    San Jose State University just got a new president (I was the online editor for the paper there at the time) so I can relate to your frustrations. The only public meeting to get input from the community was during winter break, so no students were around to participate and the paper was not being published. Then they waited to announce their decision on the day before finals started, after the paper had finished publishing for the semester and when students were too busy to pay attention anyway. (Some of us on the paper gave up our study time to do a special issue.) Luckily, they did announce the three finalists a few weeks before the semester ended, so we at least were able to do some research on them and talk to them when they visited the campus.

    I agree that public institutions need to be more open, especially when they are spending students’ fees and tax money.

  2. Meranda Says:

    @Kyle — I forgot to mention in this post, as I was focusing on K-12 public schools, but I feel your new university president pain. In fact, that might be why I feel so strongly about this topic.

    I was managing editor/”editor-elect” of my college paper when they named a new president — in the middle of exam week! With less than 24 hours notice a “finalist” would be introduced! (Only one finalist, btw.)

    The then editor and I were actually at breakfast with our ethics prof when we got the news a new president would be named. (It had been announced ONLY in a faculty e-mail that a finalist would be introduced.) We had finished production for the semester and our next issue wasn’t out for nearly a month. But damned if we’d be scooped on that!

    So, with about a dozen staffers still left on campus, we all pretty much abandoned our exams and got to work on cracking who he/she would be. Once we were confident enough with our name, we broke it online and then we put a photog and reporter on a plane to Louisiana (from Ohio) to find out who the heck the guy was. We put out an extra edition the day he was announced and a second extra the day following with more perspective and reaction. Every other paper in the region was quoting our paper on the name.

    Seriously, it was amazing journalism. In fact, I’m excited just thinking about how much fun it was. But still… not cool. I lost my 4.0 that semester. But, it was worth it. ;)

  3. Kate Martin Says:

    Meranda, I could not agree with you more. Thank you for posting this. The superintendent search infuriated me beyond explanation. I’m still mad about it. Let me explain.

    Washington State has more than 300 exemptions for executive session. They go from reasonable to ridiculous. The board also does not have to record, in any fashion, any part of the executive session. They do not have to give notice that they are going into executive session, so if it’s outside of a school board meeting, I’ll never know.

    The board in that Wired Journalists post ended up selecting a superintendent in less than a month. It turned out to be the woman I thought it would be, she was assistant superintendent after all. But they said at the meeting that there were “two very qualified candidates” that they interviewed for the post. WTF? I thought if they interviewed anyone it would be public?

    This goes back to the post I made that education reporters need more training (you made one also IIRC).

    Once we found out the finalists, I think my editors were prepared to send me, within a reasonable distance, to the community the candidate belonged to. But it’s hard to do that when we have no idea who they are.

  4. Ginny Atchison Says:

    I am not a journalist; just a parent and you have renewed my faith in the process. I am in Collier County Florida.

    After firing a 34 year veteran of our District, the School Board hired a new Superintendent without any search and without any current resume on file. The story of this school district is quite amazing. I’ve tried to chronicle it at colliercountyblog.blogspot.com with backup documentation at my personal site.

    I am also curious by nature and upon checking the credentials of our new Superintendent became quite concerned. He had never taught in a public classroom. In 4 short years he went from a middle school guidance counselor to Superintendent. He even had numerous negative articles about him in NY Times and other National publications.

    For the past year we have been embroiled in lawsuits, controversy, protests and facing the possible loss of our district accreditation due to the School Boards actions.

    The more I dug into the events the more I came to realize this is a National issue. Some recruitment firms are actively marketing “non-traditional” Superintendent candidates. I have since been writing to State officials asking them to support legislation mandating minimum continuing education requirements for School Board members as well as minimum requirements for Superintendents.

    I almost started crying to see a journalist who actually cared and is willing to go the extra mile to serve the public. Thank you.

  5. Teaching Online Journalism » Reporting beats re-examined Says:

    […] A reporter doesn’t usually go into a beat with any special background. You learn on the job. As your experience builds, you get better at it (no surprise there), and stories take less time to write. Your knowledge exceeds that of the average man on the street. You’ll also catch some flak if you miss a story on your beat — you’re supposed to have your ear to the ground on all matters related to your beat, not wait for others in the newsroom to tip you off. (Links from the blog of Meranda Watling, an education reporter in Lafayette, Indiana.) […]