Why do the words “confidential process” and “public interest” never seem quite right when used in the same sentence?
That’s because when government officials conduct business in a confidential way, the public often winds up on the losing end of the proposition.
So when the Niskayuna school district says it plans to pursue a confidential search for a new superintendent and not announce the winning candidate until the individual’s contract is in place, that should raise
significant red flags with the public.
If Niskayuna school board members learned anything from the Schenectady school district’s mishandled superintendent search process, it should have been that the public wants more of a role in the selection of such an important official, not less.
Sure, getting input into what the citizens want in a new superintendent is important to help board members shape the search and narrow the field of candidates.
But all the questionnaires in the world can’t replace the value of having members of the public being given the opportunity to observe and query the top finalists for the post, and to share their input with the school board before it makes a final decision.
That’s how it’s done in many other districts.
It’s how it should have been done in Schenectady.
And it’s how it should be done in Niskayuna.
It’s not as if the Niskayuna school board plans to conduct the entire search and selection in secrecy or without any public input. That’s not the case.
The board should, as it’s planning to do, gather input from the citizens through surveys and public input sessions to garner what citizens are looking for.
It should, as it’s planning to do, pore through resumes seeking candidates that fit those desired qualifications.
It should, as it’s planning to do, narrow the list of candidates to a small number of finalists.
We have no problem with the board narrowing the field in a confidential manner, or even using a private consultant or BOCES to do the legwork.
Candidates might not want their current employers to know they’re looking for other jobs, and it’s not fair to expose these individuals publicly if they don’t have a real shot at getting the job.
But once the field has been winnowed, the top candidates no longer have the expectation of privacy.
Many school boards around the state and country routinely announce their top three finalists, then publicize their credentials, giving citizens a chance to vet the candidates themselves.
These boards then hold public forums with those finalists, in much the same format as a political debate, allowing candidates to introduce themselves and make their case for winning the job, and allowing the public to ask them questions and get an impression of them through this personal interaction.
Some boards even invite small groups of citizens — such as those representing educators or students or civic organizations — to participate in the interview process that leads to the selection of the finalists.
While this can sometimes result in the names of the nonfinalists being made public, even if participants are sworn to secrecy, it does give the board more insight into what the public is thinking and gives the public more of a direct role in the selection of the superintendent. Candidates who don’t want the potential exposure can apply elsewhere.
Only after the public meeting with the finalists does the school board in these districts, armed with the information and impressions from that forum, make the final selection.
While we’re on the subject of confidential processes, the board should release the terms of the new superintendent’s contract — including salary, benefits and length — and give the public time to comment, before voting on the final deal, not after it’s done. The taxpayers have a right to know what this is all going to cost them, especially when you’re talking in the neighborhood of a couple hundred thousand dollars a year.
If the Niskayuna school board is truly serious about conducting an open superintendent search, it will have to go beyond the current plan and give the public a larger role in the selection of the final candidate.
Confidential processes rarely work out well for the government body or the people.
If residents of the Niskayuna school district want a more open process and a larger role in the selection of a new superintendent, they need to demand it.
Loudly. And soon.