Editorial

Not so transparent at Jeffco school board

Posted

To conduct a nationwide search for a new superintendent in 2014, Jefferson County Public Schools hired consulting company Ray & Associates. The firm notified hundreds of potential candidates and received more than 60 applications, then used feedback from the community and the school board to identify 11 top candidates. The school board then interviewed five individuals — without revealing their names and backgrounds to the public — before naming a lone finalist.

The process — met with loud outcry from the community over a lack of transparency — resulted in the selection of Dan McMinimee, then assistant superintendent in Douglas County.

The only variables that were different in the district’s superintendent search this year that resulted May 1 in the naming of lone finalist Jason Glass, currently the superintendent of Eagle County Schools, is that the five-member board is entirely different and it interviewed six candidates instead of five.

Twice, the Jeffco school district denied requests from Colorado Community Media to release the names of the six candidates who were interviewed. “Dr. Jason Glass was the sole finalist made public pursuant” to the statute, stated the district’s May 4 response to our second request. “The remaining applicants are not considered finalists and their names and current positions will not be released.”

Under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA), all finalists for a high-ranking or CEO-type position such as superintendent must be named publicly at least 14 days before an actual job offer is made, giving the public time to weigh in on the choices. (The board will meet again May 16 to vote to approve Glass.)

In our view, one person hardly seems like a finalist.

According to merriam-webster.com, a finalist is “a person who competes in the last part of a competition.” The CORA statute defines a finalist as “a member of the final group of applicants” chosen by the board. Seems like Glass was the No. 1 choice — the winner, if you will — not a competing finalist.

By naming only one finalist, without having the opportunity to consider what other choice the board could have made the district limits transparency and strips the public of its right to know more about those who could make crucial decisions in their children’s lives.

Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, put it this way: “Even if the school district’s procedure for choosing a sole finalist from six candidates didn’t violate the letter of the Sunshine Law and CORA, it certainly seems to have violated the spirit of those laws. The Legislature intended to give the public a meaningful look at the decision-making process when government entities hire chief executives.”

It was interesting that this time around, the public, including the teachers’ union and several parents’ groups, didn’t find the board’s decision to conduct its interview and selection process in private as outrageous as it it did in 2014. Was it because the present school board is much more popular in the community than the previous board? In November 2015, the community successfully recalled the board majority, which had garnered strong opposition and distrust among teachers and many parents for its policies and direction. The result of the election was an entirely new board because the other two members did not run for re-election.

Lesley Dahlkemper, a member of the 2014 school board who had voted against McMinimee’s appointment and who chose not to run again, said then: “I think the process is flawed because this board refused to allow two or three finalists to come forward.”

This time Dahlkemper said, before Glass’ selection, that the board has done a much better job of listening to the community. “I think they did very good work there and I think it’s a big difference.”

John Ford, president of the Jeffco teachers’ union, who in 2014 was critical of McMinimee’s hiring process, felt differently about the selection process this time, too.

“All indications point to this being an actual national search and the qualities the board is seeking match the wishes of the stakeholders in Jeffco, not out-of-state millionaires and billionaires,” he said before the board’s final decision.

Glass, whose credentials are impressive, may very well be the best choice. But it’s hard to tell just how well the current board did — or did not — listen to the people of Jeffco, since the names of the other potential candidates have not been made public and the vote to approve Glass was done in executive session behind closed doors.

Board members repeatedly stated that keeping candidates’ names confidential could help attract a better candidate pool because publicly naming the candidates could harm their relationships with current employers.

But for public sector executives, whose salaries are paid for with our tax dollars, that is a burden they are expected to shoulder for the sake of transparency and the public’s right to know.

Just last week, the city of Centennial held a public meet-and-greet with three selected finalists for its city manager position. The city of Golden held a similar event last year before naming its new city manager.

When Glass was hired in 2013 as superintendent of the Eagle County school district, his name was revealed along with two other finalists before the choice was made.

As one more example, consider Grand Junction School District 51’s superintendent search last month. District spokeswoman Emily Shockley reports that the district named four finalists. Those four were not only publicly identified, they also took part in a community meet-and-greet before the school board held a public vote to choose the winner.

Only one of the top candidates opted to drop out because they did not want to be named publicly.

“I think we got a great candidate, regardless,” Shockley said. “And one that values transparency.”

It’s a shame the Jefferson County Board of Education doesn’t feel the same way.

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