Whenever a school board is considering candidates for a high-profile position such as superintendent, school principal or even basketball coach, board members must grapple with the tension between two somewhat opposing priorities — safeguarding candidates' privacy and achieving public transparency.
Two local boards, South Madison Community Schools and Anderson Community Schools, recently had to walk that tightrope when selecting a replacement for a board member who had resigned.
Early this month, SMCS elected Mark Brizendine to complete the school board term of Terry Auker. Then on Monday, ACS chose Jeffrey Barranco to fill the seat vacated by Ben Gale.
Public transparency is particularly important when an elected board is choosing a new board member, since the original member was chosen by the public in a general election.
Indiana Open Door Law stipulates that the replacement member should be elected by majority vote of the board in a public meeting. The law also requires that top candidates be interviewed by the board in a public setting.
Both South Madison and Anderson boards complied with the law in the candidate interviews, and both Brizendine and Barranco were elected in a public meeting. Brizendine was elected unanimously, while Barranco was elected by a 4-1 vote. The lone dissenter on the ACS board, Jeanne Chaille, explained that she had favored "a couple" of other candidates.
What isn't clear is exactly what happened in executive sessions of the school boards, which are allowed by law for board members to discuss the candidates out of the public eye.
In the case of the SMCS executive session, board member Bill Hutton told The Herald Bulletin that the field of candidates was first narrowed to three and then "narrowed down to the last person. ... We all agreed."
Joe Buck, superintendent of SMCS, disagreed with that characterization of what happened in the executive session. "The board did not narrow the field to three," Buck said.
If the school board did narrow the field to three in the executive session, any member of the public could have requested information about the three finalists, according to attorney Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association.
The selection in the executive session of one candidate to vote on is problematic, as well. Boards aren't allowed to take a straw poll in executive sessions, aren't allowed to do the real voting in the session and then simply repeat it in public.
But they are allowed, by the letter of the law, to reach a consensus in the executive session on which candidate to vote on in public.
Another gray area was exposed by the SMCS board's communication with the six candidates. All, reportedly, were informed that they would be notified by noon July 6 if they were the candidate to be voted on that night.
The intent here was probably honorable — simply to let the candidate know he would be voted on that night so that he could be present at the meeting. But to the public, the placing of such a call could suggest that it was already a foregone conclusion that the candidate had been selected by the board.
In the case of both SMCS and ACS, it's difficult for the public to know for sure whether both the letter and spirit of the law were followed in the boards' executive sessions.
But this much is clear, boards must value public transparency just as much as they respect candidates' privacy.