Georgia allows anonymity in superintendent selection process

Fulton County Superintendent Mike Looney attends a presentation by school officials at Langston Hughes High School on Friday, December 13, 2019, in Fairburn. ELIJAH NOUVELAGE FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Fulton County Superintendent Mike Looney attends a presentation by school officials at Langston Hughes High School on Friday, December 13, 2019, in Fairburn. ELIJAH NOUVELAGE FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Mike Looney might not be Fulton County’s newest superintendent were it not for a clause in the state’s open records law that allows confidentiality for candidates being considered.

Looney, who became Fulton County Schools' superintendent in June, said he wasn't looking for a job when the position became available. The prospect of his name remaining hidden during the process allowed him to continue doing his job in Tennessee without making waves.

“I’m not sure I would have considered it,” Looney said, if names of candidates and finalists were announced ahead of a decision by district officials.

The prospect of a public search has come up several times as Atlanta Public Schools and the DeKalb County School District go about replacing their top educators. The APS board announced in September it would not renew Meria Carstarphen’s contract, which ends June 30, 2020.

Steve Green announced in May that he would leave DeKalb Schools at the end of the 2020 school year when his contract ended, though it already was clear the DeKalb County Board of Education had decided not to extend his contract beyond that point. He left in November instead after reaching a separation agreement with the school board, though he still remains listed as an inactive employee and will collect his salary through June 30, 2020.

According to the Georgia Open Records Act, where it concerns school district superintendent searches, 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.

Officials from DeKalb's superintendent search firm, BWP & Associates, have made it clear where they stand on the process's anonymity.

Kevin Castner, a BWP consultant, said the candidate pool was made stronger through allowing anonymity.

“In the state of Georgia, you have a lot of latitude in how you can deal with the issue of confidentiality,” said Castner, a retired superintendent leading the DeKalb superintendent search team. “This isn’t South Carolina where you have to announce the three finalists. This isn’t Florida where everything is ‘Sunshine’ (that state’s open-records laws dictate candidate information is available through open-records requests).”

Opponents have said anonymity allows for bad choices, giving the public little chance to vet a new leader.

When Green was chosen to lead DeKalb, the school board held a press conference with him present and allowed him to take questions. No other public meetings were scheduled.

Carstarphen visited various schools and faced questions from the community before she was selected as superintendent in 2014. Looney was subjected to public meetings before he was officially selected as well.