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Public officials understand that if they disclose the candidates for every top job, the applicant pool will shrink. Not everyone wants their boss to know they've been circulating their résumés. So, as allowed by law, hiring panels keep the initial screening confidential, but require finalists to agree to participate in some public forums.It's a process used for most public agency searches, from police and fire chiefs to city managers and, yes, school superintendents.


Steve Buel won't win any awards for diplomacy, but the Portland Public Schools board member has a knack for asking the right question, as he demonstrated during a Dec. 13 work session.

Board members were discussing the upcoming superintendent search, and their consultants were subtly steering them down a path that would make everyone's job easier.

Rather than publicly disclose the names of finalists, as is common practice, the hired guns from Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates signaled things would be a lot easier if the board revealed only the name of the person it hires, keeping the entire search process secret.

Buel wasn't having any of it. Just before the meeting's two-hour mark, he zeroed in. He asked the panel of consultants what they'd heard from the 200-plus people they'd interviewed about the district, which has lurched from one public relations disaster to another.

"Did any of them say we want more secrecy in the district, or did they say we want more genuine involvement?" he asked. "Do we want our school district to be less transparent and more secret, or more transparent and less secret?"

The consulting firm posse squirmed and deflected the question. It's up to the board, they insisted, after making their preference evident.

The board split 4-3, with Paul Anthony and Chair Tom Koehler joining Buel in the losing argument for an open process.

The majority followed the consultant's lead and voted to keep the entire search secret, aside from a stakeholder committee sworn to secrecy.

The board's decision, which could be revisited at its Jan. 10 meeting, puts it at odds with practices adopted by most local governments in Oregon.

Public officials understand that if they disclose the candidates for every top job, the applicant pool will shrink. Not everyone wants their boss to know they've been circulating their résumés. So, as allowed by law, hiring panels keep the initial screening confidential, but require finalists to agree to participate in some public forums.

It's a process used for most public agency searches, from police and fire chiefs to city managers and, yes, school superintendents.

The district's consultants, however, told board members that if they force the finalists to participate in a public process, a few candidates, particularly sitting superintendents, won't apply.

That was enough for the four-member majority to push their most important decision looming in 2017 behind closed doors.

That's a mistake for a bunch of reasons.

• As board member Pam Knowles acknowledged, this is a district that can't keep secrets. "I don't have confidence that we can keep the information confidential," she said during the work session, then voted to try and do just that. Promising finalists that their names won't be revealed is setting the board — and applicants — up for embarrassment.

• The next superintendent needs to know he or she is accountable not just to the board members (who come and go) but to the larger community. A secret process will only further the impression that the board thinks it knows best.

• Given the district's mishandling of its lead-in-the-water crises and continued missteps with public information, parents, students, teachers and community members deserve the chance to be involved in an open process that leads to the selection of the next superintendent.

• The board needs to watch how the finalists interact with the public. What do they say to a parent who is angry that the district let their kid drink lead-tainted water in school? How do they address complaints about the district's inability to track resource expenditures or results? What's their reaction to a call for a shakeup of top staff? When pressed, can they demonstrate that "equity" is not just a buzzword?

• Finally, does the board really want to hire someone who isn't comfortable telling their existing employer (most likely a school board) that they're job-shopping? Once they're hired here, they might secretly ship off a résumé as soon as things get tough in Portland.

The consultants did offer board members a bit of good advice. Once they start asking for job applications, they can't change the process. So, if the board is going to do the right thing in the selection of the next superintendent, it needs to reverse course next week and vote for more public involvement and transparency, not less. 

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