3 districts search for new superintendents, but have different processes

State and Baltimore County have secretive search; Howard County to announce its finalists Monday

March 24, 2012|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

Searching for a new school superintendent in Maryland sometimes takes the skills of a CIA agent, including clandestine meetings and flights to faraway places.

Three Maryland school boards are nearing the end of searches for new superintendents, and each one has included a closed process during the last several months. In other secret searches, the names of the candidates are kept confidential and interviews with the school board are often held in airports or airport hotels so that candidates can fly in and out without being seen. And even the top contenders may never set foot in school offices.

The state school board and Baltimore County's board have refused to release information even about how many finalists they are interviewing or when those interviews might take place. Howard County has chosen a different path, deciding to make the names of the last two finalists public Monday.

The confidential approach is not unusual and is necessary, the school boards say, if they are going to attract the best applicants, who may fear their current jobs would be in jeopardy.

"We have had applicants who have asked for confidentiality. ... People are concerned that if their name is public, it could adversely affect them," said Lawrence Schmidt, president of the Baltimore County school board.

Baltimore City schools CEO Andrés Alonso said he would not have applied for his job if the process had been open to the public. "It was important that my effectiveness in my role as deputy chancellor [in New York City] not be compromised in any way by the possibility in Baltimore. I never met with the board in Baltimore. We met in College Park and BWI," said Alonso, who visited the city for the first time after he took the job.

But other people argue that an open process is a far better way to choose a new leader because the candidates' names are made public and the community has a chance to read their resumes, interview them and become familiar with them. And once a choice is made, the community has a greater comfort level with the board's final choice.

"Would you rather hire someone secretly and then have to make the case or would you rather have public comment and have the stellar candidate make the case for you?" asked Paul Lemle, Howard County Education Association president.

The Howard school board is doing just that by holding a community forum between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Monday to give members of the public an hour to ask questions of each of the two finalists. The board expects to select a superintendent this coming week.

A closed process leaves board members more open for criticism, particularly for a board that has come under fire for its past decisions, Lemle said. Howard County's board has been beset by infighting recently, and is trying to get one of its elected members ousted.

Other states have had more open processes in school superintendent searches. In Florida, every candidate's application is available to the public and is often online. Interviews with the board are done in public session and are even sometimes shown live on television. When school boards in Florida sit down to make a final decision, they do so at a public meeting.

"I think the advantages are that it is transparent and open," said Wayne Blanton, Florida Association of School Administrators executive director. "There is a lot of community involvement."

In particular, Blanton said, the public helps vet the candidates. The press, unions, PTAs and other interest groups spend time digging up background information on each candidate and sometimes turn up facts that a search firm or the school board doesn't.

"I think there are so many people who have the opportunity to look at the background of the candidate, that there are no surprises," said Blanton, who has been conducting searches for Florida school districts.

In Maryland, there are no laws or regulations regarding searches. Interviews and appointments of superintendents are an executive function and therefore do not have to be done in an open meeting, according to findings when three cases were brought before an open meetings compliance board. The only requirement is that boards discuss how they will involve the public at an open meeting, according to the state department of education.

Schmidt said earlier this week that the Baltimore County board was "very pleased with the number of excellent candidates" who have applied. He added that the board has offered confidentiality to candidates, but that if they are comfortable with their names being released in the final stages, the board would consider opening the process.

State school board President James DeGraffenreidt said the board had to maintain confidentiality in its search.

"Each of [the candidates] currently serve in high-profile positions and many would not be able to remain effective in their positions if it became known that they were considering the Maryland Superintendent position," he said in an email.

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