School board was wrong not to name finalists

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School board was wrong not to name finalists

Published Friday, February 8, 2013   |  654 Words  |  

Beaufort County school board members profess 'transparency' in hiring a new superintendent, then fail the first major test of that promise.

The board should have immediately released the names of the people it picked as finalists to replace former superintendent Valerie Truesdale. Doing so Thursday doesn't change that it should have been done Wednesday night.

The state's Freedom of Information Act is clear on two key points:

  • Decisions cannot be made behind closed doors. The only vote that can be taken in an executive session is to end the secret meeting and return to public session.
  • The names of finalists for a job must be released to the public. All of the finalists names must be released. If the board is making a final decision among seven people, then seven names should be released. It cannot be fewer than three names, according to the law.
  • And with the release of the names should come the release of all materials collected on the people under final consideration.

    The law doesn't state that you must release information only if it's all right with the job applicants or only if the applicants choose to continue the process. Board Chairman Bill Evans gave that excuse Wednesday night and early Thursday, saying the finalists had to be contacted about whether they wanted to go on with the interview process before their names were released.

    People who apply for public jobs, such as a superintendent's job, should expect that it will become public. Many of these people already work for public entities, and their current employers and the people who pay their salaries should know, too. Besides that, the board could have determined their willingness to go forward before picking the finalists.

    Evans' contention that no "vote" was taken behind closed doors even though the field of candidates went from seven semifinalists to an undisclosed number of finalists stands common sense on its ear. Of course, a decision was made or there would still be seven semifinalists. Whether board members raised their hands or used secret hand signals, a decision was made, and it should have been done in public. That goes for winnowing the 11 recommended applicants to seven semifinalists, also done in closed session.

    The law and a 2007 state Supreme Court decision make it very clear that information on at least three job candidates must be made public. That ruling came out of a lawsuit filed against the Spartanburg County School District over its releasing information on only two finalists for the superintendent's job from a group of five semifinalists.

    The court pointed to the plain language of the statute and the unambiguous intent of the legislature in stating that no fewer than three meant no fewer than three. Public bodies can't get around that requirement by naming only one or two finalists.

    The court went on to say that the statute doesn't force a public body to name three finalists. "The statute simply requires a public employer to disclose material relating to a larger group of applicants if it chooses to name one or two finalists."

    And in the case of the Spartanburg district, the court said, that meant information on the five semifinalists should be released -- the final group numbering more than two.

    Part of understanding and evaluating a particular hiring choice is knowing who wasn't chosen. Lawmakers understood that; that's why the law requires information be released on no fewer than three job finalists.

    The board has scheduled meetings Feb. 13, 14 and 19 for people to meet and ask questions of the finalists. Board members will tout the inclusion of the public, as they have from the start, in the superintendent's hiring.

    But that doesn't allow them to ignore the law as they did Wednesday.