Georgia educator Donyall Dickey was headed to Portland to be superintendent of its largest school district until the deal blew up May 4.
Members of the Portland School Board blame a lack of transparency on the part of Dickey, who has some minor blemishes in his background.
There's some rich irony in that explanation, considering that the school board itself avoided a transparent process when it conducted the search for a new superintendent.
When it started looking for someone to replace former Superintendent Carole Smith, the board contracted with a consulting firm for $75,000 and agreed, in a divided vote, to accept the consultants' recommendation for a closed process. The names of finalists for the position were kept secret until the moment Dickey was revealed to be the top candidate on March 3.
Only then did the public vetting begin in earnest. In addition to the discovery that Dickey had a handful of small, and probably irrelevant, transgressions in his past, the board and the candidate also got hung up over money. Among other things, Dickey wanted the opportunity to continue consulting with other school districts while occupying the full-time job at Portland Public Schools.
Dickey says he withdrew his name from consideration, but board Chairman Tom Koehler says the board also was ready to pull the plug. Koehler cites a lack of candor from Dickey about the minor issues in his past. Certainly, Koehler is correct that PPS has had enough problems with public trust, and it would be unwise to bring in a superintendent who was perceived as being less than honest during the job interviews and subsequent negotiations.
However, board members also should consider whether the current mess might have been averted if they had agreed at the outset to a more open search. If the board had gone with a process that made public the names of all finalists for the position, then hundreds of community members — not just the board and a confidential stakeholder committee — could have asked questions and interacted with the candidates.
An open search also would have given education watchdogs and the news media ample time to dig into the backgrounds of each finalist before the board narrowed the list down to just one person. With far greater public engagement and more extensive media scrutiny, an open search process would have assured the board it had the community backing it needed to extend an offer.
The closed process produced the opposite result: The board alone owns its decision to select and then deselect Dickey. As it relaunches its superintendent search, the PPS board should commit to a public process that will allow full vetting of multiple finalists. Based on the experiences of other school districts, it's clear that PPS still will attract high-quality candidates even if the search isn't shrouded in secrecy.
The PPS board knows first-hand what can result from a poorly designed, closed process. Going forward, it should see what difference a good — open — process can make.