The Columbus Board of Education has been promising an open and transparent search for its next superintendent since August, when Dan Good announced he would retire from the job at year's end. That promise started looking shaky in January, when board President Gary Baker refused to acknowledge that scheduled interviews were happening and the board refused to say which of 19 initial candidates had made its short list.
Now internal emails show the board's professed transparency to be all but meaningless.
Here's what a look at some emails, requested by The Columbus Dispatch Reporter Bill Bush under the Ohio Open Meetings Act, reveal:
* The list of 19 applicants, made public in December, was incomplete. Board members have met with at least four candidates who weren't named on the list. Baker acknowledges there may be still others who have been interviewed but not named.
* The executive-search consultant hired by the board took deliberate steps to keep documents from being available to the public. In one email to a school-district staffer, the consultant wrote, "I shared them last meeting but had to recollect them so the list wasn't public."
* The board also might have violated Ohio's open-meetings law, by making decisions about the search behind closed doors. To quote another email from the consultant, from December: "Next Tues. could take a while... We need to decide whom they'll interview, decide on questions, decide about them presenting or (sic) writing sample and decide on next steps after Jan. interview."
The law allows public bodies to meet in secret for certain purposes, including to discuss personnel issues, but they cannot legally take action in those meetings. Any decisions must be made in public sessions.
Baker seems blithely unconcerned when questioned about the secrecy. Asked whether the board is keeping records with the consultant to avoid making them public, he said, "I'd rather not get into details like that. Any documents that the consultant has that relate to applicants are public records."
We're glad to hear Baker say that, and we expect the district to be forthcoming with those documents.
It isn't as if applicants for the job should expect anonymity. Ohio's open-records laws preclude that, and the search firm said that every applicant had been informed of that fact.
Yet the district has balked at virtually every request for information about the search, even making the not-very-credible claim, when the Dispatch formally requested search-related records at an earlier point in the process, that it hadn't had any written correspondence with the search firm -- only verbal conversations.
This, despite the fact that the firm's contract with the district says it must, among other services, "present to the board a list of finalists."
Our concern over secrecy isn't about an affront to the Dispatch or other news media; it is that the district violates its public trust, and possibly state law, by keeping the public in the dark.
Beyond that, by hiring in secret, it risks sabotaging the next superintendent's credibility before he or she even starts. It certainly undermines the credibility of the board.
This editorial was first published in the Feb. 1 edition of The Columbus Dispatch.