EDITORIAL: Include public in search for Schenectady schools chief

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There’s a difference between protecting job candidates’ privacy and conducting a superintendent search in total secret.

The Schenectady City School District must find the proper balance.

The district is being forced to start essentially from scratch on the yearlong search for a new superintendent after the lone candidate it presented to the public decided not to take the job.

The board came under heavy criticism from teachers, parents, the local NAACP chapter and others in good part for not fully including the public in the search and selection process.

Because of their position — administering the education of a generation of children — school superintendents are often the highest-paid, most visible and arguably most influential public officials in a community.

It’s natural and appropriate for stakeholders in that community to want a say in the criteria used to evaluate candidates and have a voice in who is ultimately selected.

But the key challenge faced by Schenectady school officials is attracting the best candidates for the job.

Those candidates don’t always want their current employers to learn that they’re actively applying for jobs elsewhere.

No matter how careful district officials are about maintaining confidentiality, once the public is involved, word about who the candidates are is likely to get out. With the possibility of having their names becoming public before they’re ready, it’s easy to see how the best candidates might be reluctant to even apply.

That has some school board members supporting a more secretive selection process.

Legally, there’s nothing stopping the district from holding the search in secret.

The state Open Meetings Law allows boards to hold confidential discussions in “matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person.” And the state Freedom of Information Law allows government bodies to withhold information that “if disclosed would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

One could argue from the candidate’s point of view that publicly announcing that they are actively seeking a new job could constitute such an invasion of privacy.

But in seeking the best candidate to lead the school district, school board members must consider the needs and desires of the public they serve. And that means they must involve them in the hiring process as much as possible.

Other districts in the state have involved their citizens heavily in the process without jeopardizing candidates’ confidentiality, at least until there was a real chance the candidate might get the job.

There are plenty of models in the state for Schenectady officials to investigate and emulate.

Some school districts have included the public by creating community action groups of teachers, parents, community groups and others to find out what they’re seeking in a new superintendent, including the type and level of experience, the educational and social background, and other factors.

Many districts conduct community surveys to find out what the public wants in a new superintendent.

They keep their citizens in the loop the entire way by holding focus group meetings in public and sending out newsletters and other updates to the community.

The Goshen school district in Orange County, for instance, is in the final stages of its superintendent search.

The process has involved a detailed schedule that’s included a survey of candidate qualities sought by the community (It garnered more than 1,200 responses in a district with 3,800 students.); community meetings and a public forum; a review of the forum and survey results; creation of a candidate profile; and private interviews with the top candidates.

Citizens were informed through postings of survey results, videos of public meetings and other information on the district website, SchoolMessenger notifications, push notifications via the district app and press releases to the local newspapers.

The process began last August and is expected to conclude with the selection of a new superintendent by July 1.

The Manhasset Union Free School District’s public involvement included the posting of a PowerPoint presentation online that highlighted the district’s timetable and plan for selecting a new leader.

It included the district’s goals, challenges and preferences for the traits in a new superintendent.

When it comes to narrowing the choice of candidates, some districts have culled resumes to narrow the field of acceptable candidates that meet the criteria garnered from the public sessions.

Either the boards have decided to go through the resumes themselves or they’ve hired an independent consultant to match the candidates with the criteria.

A consultant is not necessarily a bad investment, especially given Schenectady’s recent history, and there are several available for hire in the state.

When districts get down to the top three to five candidates, only then are the candidates’ names released to the public.

Releasing finalists’ names is fairly common, and candidates shouldn’t expect further confidentiality if they’ve made it to the top of the heap.

Districts often then get more input from the public before agreeing on a new superintendent, including public sessions with the finalists.

Yes, it’s an arduous process. Yes, it can become slow and frustrating, and maybe even tumultuous.

It’s always much easier and faster for government to dictate a decision to the people than it is to seek their input.

But in addition to ignoring potentially valuable input from the public, secrecy breeds mistrust and conflict.

When it comes to selecting a school superintendent, it’s vital that the Schenectady school board resist the temptation to expedite the process by operating in secret and without citizen input.

The decision is too important to the entire community to take it completely out of the people’s hands.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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