At first glance, it certainly seems like there could have been something nefarious about the Rochester City School Board's superintendent search. For one thing, candidates were interviewed in secret and their names were not released, even as the search committee narrowed the pool down to five and, later, two finalists. (The board announced its pick April 1, after City went to press.)
There's also been suspicion that the committee tried to keep the press --- and, by extension, the public --- away from its meetings. In two articles, appearing March 20 and 27, Democrat and Chronicle reporter Heather Hare documented the board's failure to adequately notify the daily about search committee meetings. And when the committee met on March 19, members Rob Brown and Darryl Porter quickly voted to go into executive session, then left the district office to meet candidates in undisclosed locations.
On March 28, the D&C's editorial board weighed in with a lead editorial. It criticized the board for keeping the names of the finalists secret and "playing fast and loose with the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Law." It stated that the board's actions have "invited community disdain."
But before you accept that invitation and begin heaping disdain on the already beleaguered board, you may want to hear search committee chair Porter's side of the story.
Porter is apologetic for having failed to send notices of search committee meetings to the press in a timely manner. He readily admits to having committed this "oversight." However, he also points out that the meetings were scheduled last November, and notice of them had been publicly posted in the district's office for months. What he failed to send out were reminders that the meetings were taking place.
Yet whether members of the press got the notices or not, they still wouldn't have had anything to cover. "We would have protected the identities of the candidates during the interviewing process, anyway," Porter says.
Well, because the board promised all the candidates anonymity, no matter how far along the application process they should get. Furthermore, Porter says he explained to the press that the process of selecting a super would be kept confidential when the search started last fall.
Without that promise of anonymity, Porter says the board would never have gotten as many candidates for the position as it did --- 40 people started the application process.
During past searches, candidates' names were leaked to the press and published in local papers, Porter says. When that news reached the press in a candidate's hometown, Porter says the applicant either "caught hell" or "wound up on a short leash" --- that is, was soon replaced --- "even though they hadn't gotten the [Rochester] job."
"We lost a couple candidates last time because of that," Porter says.
Having promised the candidates anonymity, the board couldn't renege on that promise late in the process, says Porter. Doing so would not only betray the candidates' trust; it would damage the district's credibility, thereby making it harder to attract candidates during any future searches.
Porter also stresses that though the board chose to conduct its interviews in secret, it went out of its way to solicit input from the public early on in the process. Normally, he says, the consulting firm the district hires to find candidates will hold discussions with select representatives of various groups and organizations associated with the district. Recommendations from those individuals are then used to help define the search criteria.
But this time, Porter says the district invited the general public to attend meetings at which anyone could provide their own input as to what kind of super they wanted. "Then we turned all that information over to the consultant, along with their normal screening that they do with a handful of people in different groups, so that [everyone's input] could be included together and we could get a full profile," he says.
Personally, Porter says he would have preferred to narrow the pool of candidates down to two, and then present them to the public for feedback. But it wasn't his decision to keep the process secret from initial interviews to final selection --- that was a decision the board made as a whole.
And, personally, Porter's a little surprised some members of the press have such short attention spans. Having explained the process to reporters last fall, Porter says "it was clear" the search would be conducted in secret.
"Now all of a sudden everybody's got amnesia," he says. "It was like, 'Oh, I didn't know...' I said, 'What part of "closed" did you not understand?'"
Porter doesn't begrudge the D&C for making an issue out of his failure to send reminders of search committee meetings. "I think they're doing the right thing to at least challenge" whether the Open Meetings Law was violated, he says, as it pointed out an aspect of his work he can improve.
Notwithstanding the negative press, Board President Shirley Thompson says, "I don't think it's damaged our reputation or the public's perception of us."
But given the nature of the controversy, Thompson also says, "I don't think it deserved the criticism that was leveled at it."