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Superintendent selection process not so super

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When Idaho Springs was choosing a new chief of police weeks ago, the city held a virtual community forum so residents could get to know the three finalists being considered for the position. Just last week, Commerce City held something similar for the three finalists for the city manager position.

When Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Jason Glass was applying to become a commissioner of education for the Kentucky Department of Education last year, his name was made public by the state along with two other finalist candidates for that position. 

Glass was eventually named as the top choice and accepted the position. 

All three hiring processes comply with what is considered best practices for open government, giving the public a chance to see what the alternatives were in the hiring of an executive to a public organization.

In fact, under the Colorado Open Records Act, 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. CORA defines “finalist” as “a member of the final group of applicants or candidates.”

However, the state’s second largest school district has repeatedly — for at least the last three times now — skirted this rule, by naming only a single “finalist.” This is precisely what the district did on March 25 in naming Glass’ replacement, Tracy Dorland. 

Much as this editorial board said after Glass was hired, this new superintendent seems well qualified and could easily have been the superior choice out of the four, dare we say, finalists that the Jeffco Public Schools Board of Education interviewed earlier in the week. Not to disparage Dorland, but the method the school board used in choosing her has perpetuating a practice that does not serve the ideals of transparent governance. We, the parents, teachers and taxpayers of Jefferson County will likely never know who the board passed over in this choice. We have no way of judging the wisdom of our five elected officials in this decision.

The argument against revealing more than one finalist for an executive chief position, one explicitly voiced by the search firm hired by Jeffco Public Schools — Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates — was that the mere possibility of being revealed as a position-seeker could dissuade top candidates from applying. 

In response, we would point out that the possibility of being named a finalist didn’t dissuade Jeffco’s last choice for superintendent. Also, we happen to think being as transparent as possible, even when it may be inconvenient, is an excellent quality to want in a public schools administrator.  

This is a recurring problem across the state. Both Adams 12 Five-Star and Denver Public Schools, districts Dorland worked with previously, named only one finalist the last time they selected a superintendent.

In 2019, the Boulder Daily Camera sued CU Boulder after the board of regents pulled the same stunt in the selection of a new university president, naming just one finalist and refusing to release the names of other applicants that were interviewed for the job. A district court judge sided with the paper, writing in the decision “Under the plain and ordinary meaning of the statutes, there were more than one finalist for the 2019 CU president position.” 

The case was appealed up to the Colorado Court of Appeals earlier this year. Appellate Judge Michael Berger called the interpretation of CORA used by CU and Jeffco Public Schools regarding the hiring of chief executives as “seriously flawed,” in his opinion. He added that the district court ruling that more than one finalist should be named under CORA would clearly “better advance the sunshine and open government principles that underlie those statutes.” However, in a 2-1 decision the appellate court concluded that it should be left to legislators, not the courts, to clarify the language of CORA to better align with its intent. 

The appellate court overturning the CU decision had unfortunate timing for Jeffco. How much more transparent might Dorland’s hiring have been had that ruling still stood. 

Of course, a little more dedication to the ideal of transparency on the part of the Jeffco school board could have done that, too.

Unfortunately, state lawmakers recently advanced legislation that would rewrite portions of the Colorado Open Meetings Act and Colorado Open Meetings Law to let public bodies in Colorado disclose just one finalist when choosing a new chief executive such as a city manager, school district superintendent or university president. It recently passed the House Business Affairs & Labor Committee 11-2.

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