Public scrutiny needed

Searches: Releasing the names of finalists for superintendents' jobs could prevent embarrassment later.

May 08, 1999

IMAGINE THE reaction if information about Elfreda Massie's financial problems had surfaced after she had accepted the position of Montgomery County school superintendent.

Still, the county's Board of Education looks foolish because poorly handled background checks of its leading candidate failed to turn up a bankruptcy filing. Had the board been more open about the finalists for the job, information about Ms. Massie's financial affairs might have surfaced sooner.

Maryland school boards often cite the personnel exemption in the state's open meetings law as justification for keeping the names of candidates secret. Obviously, school boards don't want to conduct their initial searches for superintendents in fish bowls. Some top-notch people would be reluctant to apply if their current employers were to find out immediately. But once the search for a superintendent is narrowed to the finalists, it is in the board members' best interest to let the public know who is being considered.

As has been demonstrated in other cases, search firms sometimes don't thoroughly investigate candidates. In Ms. Massie's case, the firm missed a bankruptcy filing, which is a matter of public record. In Dallas, the same firm that conducted Montgomery County's investigation failed to uncover that a candidate had been convicted of drunken driving. Search firms have also failed to reveal that front-runners had domestic problems or had been fired for extravagant spending.

Releasing the names would mean that newspapers and other media could conduct their own checks. In the Massie case, tips about her financial problems were phoned to local news outlets.

The public vetting of candidates can serve as a final check on candidates. Howard and Prince George's counties are now looking for superintendents. For such important positions, finalists should be subject to public scrutiny.

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