The Lebanon School District made the right call this week when it opted for additional transparency in its search for a new superintendent.
In doing so, the board declined a recommendation from the recruiter it's hired to help find a replacement for Rob Hess. But its members might also have been thinking about a promise they made to Lebanon residents when they forced Hess out the door — that the search for the new superintendent would involve "multiple opportunities for public engagement."
The board's recruiter, Hank Harris of Human Capital Enterprises, recommended a search process in which the names of candidates are not released publicly, but staff and community committees interview the finalists to provide feedback. (Harris gave the board four options regarding confidentiality, ranging from a system where all the applicants are public to one in which only the name of one finalist is released.)
Harris outlined the case for confidentiality at the board's meeting this week: He said that, in his experience, qualified candidates sometimes won't apply for another job if it means that their names become public. Those candidates, Harris said, worry about alienating people in their current districts if word were to leak out that they had applied for another job.
We've heard that argument before, and there might be some merit to it: There might be cases when a good candidate passes on a job because the hiring process is public. On the flip side, though, are community members really so naive to be surprised or disappointed that employees of a school district may be interested in jobs elsewhere that offer career advancement? It's not as if these school district or government jobs are appointments for life.
Nevertheless, a couple of board members were leaning toward Harris' recommendation for a process that emphasized confidentiality.
But then trustee Richard Borden weighed in to note that he was strongly in favor of a more public process: "I think the community has high expectations from us that this will be transparent," he said. "If that costs us a candidate, so be it."
In opting for a process with more transparency, Borden may have been thinking of the manner in which Hess' long tenure with the Lebanon School District came to an end: Hess resigned July 1 through an agreement with the board that was approved 3-1 during a June 14 special session. Members of the public are not allowed to observe special sessions, and details of the agreement have not been made public, with board members saying only that the resignation decision came after the board went through Hess' evaluation. Hess did not attend the June 14 meeting, which is a pretty clear indication that the retirement was more like a forced resignation.
As we noted in an editorial at the time, these resignation agreements typically include legal language that severely limits what all parties can say to the public, which is doubtless part of the reason why board members have been generally mum. But they did issue that statement which included the promise about "public engagement."
There's another reason why the board is wise to opt for more transparency: These searches are about more than just identifying outstanding candidates to be the leader of your school district. They're also processes in which the community gets to reflect on the traits it wants to see in its next superintendent — and, by extension, in its schools. Even the best and brightest candidates are bound to stumble if they're out of sync with community expectations. Conversations with more than one candidate can help to fine-tune those expectations. A selection process that limits public access to applicants by definition limits the opportunities residents have for discussions that could be illuminating. And here's an area in which Lebanon residents deserve more, rather than less, illumination. (mm)