A secret search, 2016 version

Reporter Amanda Williams sent me a text from the School Board meeting a few weeks back: "They decided the super search will be confidential."

Of course they did; that's the same thing they decided last time we hired a school superintendent back in 2010.

Citizens have asked for openness since Steve Constantino announced his resignation in July, but our School Board decided to give this call to BWP, the search firm they've hired.

One of the great things about working for a newspaper that's been around for hundreds of years is we understand the value of history and context.

On Nov. 17, 2010, Gazette publisher Bill O'Donovan wrote an editorial titled, "A secret search." I had copy of that editorial in a folder at my desk when Williams' text arrived; so, rather than use new words to frame our frustration with this year's version of the secret search, I'll let O'Donovan's words make the same point to the same group, again.

"The custom has always been to winnow the field of superintendent candidates to three and see how they sell themselves to the public.

"Forget that, the WJC School Board was told. (The search firm) advised members to protect the identity of candidates by hiding them from public scrutiny. The promise was that the School Board would get a 'better pool' of players because they wouldn't be risking their future with their current employer.

"What bunk.

"This is a taxpayer-paid search for the most important job in the community. …

"Secrecy provides no correlation to 'better.' It merely guarantees that any longshot has nothing to lose by applying. Secrecy conveys the wrong message about transparency and could lead the eventual winner to find other ways around public scrutiny. ...

"(The search firm) is charging us $18,000 for this search. No word on who does the vetting, how to measure testing improvements, what their track record is on teacher compensation, who excels at public interaction, how the candidates avoided controversy, how they handled controversy, or how long they've stayed at their previous jobs. All of this matters to parents and taxpayers before anyone is hired."

Fast-forward six years and we have pretty much the same things happening.

Sure, the contract costs a little less — $16,900 — and is with a different firm, but will the other accommodations for public input be enough?

Community members have been promised public forums, access to an online survey to share our thoughts and preferences and meetings with targeted groups. Apparently the targeted groups will be specific subgroups of citizens yet to be revealed. Will they be business people, teachers, PTA members? We'll see.

Don't misunderstand; I'm glad we'll all have the chance to share our thoughts. Soliciting information at the front end of the process is a good thing; its not enough that it's the only thing.

Hiring good people who understand and can advance the mission of an organization is critical to success in any business. But the school district isn't just any business; arguably, it is the organization upon whose shoulders the success of every other business in this community stands.

Candidates who understand that and make it to the finalist cut need to be willing to meet their community, shake some hands, ask and answer some questions. Constantino's predecessor, Gary Mathews, was hired in 2005 using a private firm; the two finalists attended a public forum where they responded to audience questions, before the board ultimately decided on Mathews.

But apparently those of us in favor of openness and transparency just don't understand how things work. As board member Mary Minor said at that October meeting, "This is our selection of a superintendent; it's not an election of a superintendent."

Well, I'm glad we cleared that up.

Bellows is editor of The Virginia Gazette. She can be reached at 757-345-2347 or pbellows@vagazette.com.

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