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DeKalb Schools officials tight-lipped on any leadership search info

A crowd gathers before the public meeting of the DeKalb County Board of Education meeting at the DeKalb County School District headquarters in Stone Mountain. (Miguel Martinez/For the AJC)
A crowd gathers before the public meeting of the DeKalb County Board of Education meeting at the DeKalb County School District headquarters in Stone Mountain. (Miguel Martinez/For the AJC)

The DeKalb County Board of Education sent a press release Tuesday announcing a continuation on Friday of its meeting from Feb. 12, called to interview candidates privately for the vacant superintendent position.

Officials announced in January that 68 people had applied to succeed Steve Green, who announced plans to leave the district at the end of the current school year, but left in November after reaching a separation agreement with the school board. They have not said much else since.

Some close to the process, including school board members who gave the information on condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to speak about the search, have said just four candidates remain.

Some are concerned less with the confidentiality and more about who emerges from it.

“I think as long as we get a superintendent … where there’s an alignment in the system so cronyism and nepotism can be diminished,” said Joel Edwards of the government watchdog group Restore DeKalb. “We’re going to be involved as stakeholders. We just hope that the superintendent comes in and works with the community.”

According to the Georgia Open Records Act, where it concerns school district superintendent searches, individual districts have the option to have an open or closed process. Should a closed, or confidential, process be chosen, information on finalists is not public until 14 days before a final vote is taken to select a permanent superintendent. In recent searches, districts have elected to choose single finalists, allowing others interviewed in the process to remain anonymous.

“Prior to the release of these documents, the public agency making the decision may allow a finalist to decline being considered further for the position rather than have documents pertaining to her or him released,” according to Georgia Public Schools and the Open Records Act: A Citizen’s Guide to Accessing School Records, from the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

Some states, such as Florida, have open processes where the names of all who apply are publicly available. The Tampa Bay Times recently published a list of all who applied to replace an outgoing superintendent in Hillsborough County.

Edwards, of Restore DeKalb, just wants the new superintendent to be better introduced to the community than Green's experience, which included taking questions at the press conference where he was named the district's sole finalist in 2015. By comparison, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen visited various schools and faced questions from the community before she was selected in 2014. Current Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney was subjected to public meetings before he was officially selected as well.

When the 68 applicants were announced by the district in January, just eight were presented to the board by its search firm.

“We believe this is the best process to get the best candidate,” DeKalb County Board of Education chairman Marshall Orson said Wednesday. “I expect Atlanta to have a confidential process. Fulton just had a confidential process. In our opinion, it’s a better practice. (Opening the process) may change the integrity.”

Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at the University of Georgia, said while districts claim secrecy allows them to recruit good candidates, "no compelling evidence" exists that suggests confidential process produce successful candidates.

“There’s a lot of evidence to the contrary, in fact, and around the country many school districts have recruited successful leaders through a transparent process that offers more public accountability,” he said. “There’s no good reason for a superintendent search to look like a papal conclave.”