More transparency needed

One of the more frustrating parts of the job of covering news is the secrecy employed by school districts when they are searching for a new superintendent.

The hiring of a superintendent is one of the most important decisions a school board will make. A superintendent can help shape a school district both during his or her tenure and even years after the person is gone.

But school boards are notorious in keeping secret who they are considering for these all important posts.

State law does make the name of the candidates confidential but the boards could work out an agreement with finalists that their names be released if both sides agree. The Portland school district held a public forum earlier this year to allow the public to meet with one of its finalists.

The University of Maine will have finalists for both its chancellor position and university presidents meet with the community before a final decision is made on whether to hire a candidate. There is no damage done to those finalists, even the ones who end up not getting offered the job.

But school districts maintain secrecy at a level comparable to the Manhattan Project of the  1940s.

History shows that the more transparency the better. About 20 years ago, the Rockland area school board hired a superintendent and business manager in its traditional secret way. Within a few years the district found itself in a deficit of $750,000 – which was big money back then – due to poor financial management by the top administrators and lack of oversight by the board.

As it turns out, one of the administrators had a poor track record in the previous job and left under similar circumstances. There was nothing nefarious to the track record but if the board had publicized its choices, the district may not have had to deal with the financial pain it would later experience.

And a few years after that, the Waldoboro area school district had agreed on a finalist for a superintendent job. I found out who the finalist was before the vote and published a story in the local newspaper. As it turns out the finalist had failed to inform the board that he had left a previous job under less than desirable conditions. The board was not even aware that the finalist had held that job.

The bottom line is that school districts should be more open to having its finalists vetted publicly. When it comes to the final votes of the school board to hire a superintendent, the vote is almost always unanimous so that the board can show it is unified in its decision even if that is not the case.

Regional School Unit 13, which covers the Rockland area, is going through what appears to be the final phase of its latest superintendent search. No names are being released as the board is ready to vote in less than two weeks on a candidate.

The candidate could be the current interim superintendent but neither he nor the board is talking about any such details.

Manhattan-style secrecy is not needed.