Choosing school leader should be open process

By the Advocate Editorial Board
Feb. 8, 2018 at 5:57 p.m.
Updated Feb. 9, 2018 at 6 a.m.

When school district officials use the term "lone finalist" in the coming months, it will mean "this is the person we are going to hire for the superintendent's job."

The person will be neither alone nor a real finalist.

That person will be offered the job.

For residents in the Victoria Independent School District, that term also means they will not know about the other finalists the school board considered.

That part of the process - the actual vetting of multiple candidates - is done in secret.

And that denies the public a meaningful role in searching for and selecting a superintendent.

Wednesday, the search firm hired by VISD coordinated a town hall meeting to hear about the qualities the public and district employees would like to see in their next district leader.

About 20 people attended that meeting, mostly district workers. There also is an ongoing community survey that is open to anyone willing to take time to fill it out.

That is a fine way to include the public at the start of the search, but it's not enough.

Unfortunately, the law allows this secrecy.

Texas Government Code 552.126, which was passed by the state Legislature in 1995, allows the school board to announce its lone finalist three weeks before paperwork is signed. However, the law does not require it, and VISD board members can change their minds and their process.

Ross Mansker, the president of the VISD school board, will explain that the promise of confidentiality protects superintendent applicants at their current jobs. It allows them to apply and not fear retribution or a diminishment of trust or authority where they work now, Mansker said. Candidates could lose their positions if caught job-seeking.

The result, he said, is that good candidates would be discouraged from applying if they could not be assured confidentiality in the process.

He and school board members have embraced this reasoning during the past two decades. VISD can't really be blamed for going along with the crowd, so to speak.

Nonetheless, this is a flimsy excuse.

School superintendents live high-profile, high-paying lives in the public sector - that is the essence of their job. And if they cannot deal with scrutiny in an application process, then can they really tolerate the huge amount of scrutiny that comes with the job?

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the law denies the public the transparency it deserves in selecting a new superintendent.

An open process, she said, gives the public a chance to review whether a candidate is a good fit for the community; it allows a chance to scrutinize a candidate's background and job performance for any undesirable elements.

And if a school district knows it has a top-shelf, highly effective superintendent, then it also knows he or she is likely going to be actively recruited.

"That just goes with the territory," Shannon said.

The real question is whether VISD board members should invoke the shroud of secrecy.

Board members should follow the lead of Victoria College and the University of Houston-Victoria in terms of selecting a new leader.

VC identified its three finalists for president in 2015 before settling on David Hinds. Clearly, that process worked out well because Hinds is an outstanding president.

Later this year, UHV officials plan to bring in three finalists for the role of president to meet and greet with faculty, staff members and the public before a selection committee chooses Vic Morgan's successor.

But Mansker said the board committed to the confidentiality path when it selected its search firm. Mansker is asking the public to trust the board to do a good job in selecting a new superintendent.

We know with certainty that board members have the district's best interests in mind in every decision they make.

But this issue is about giving the public a more inclusive role in choosing the person who will hold their trust in guiding a district of 14,000 students and who will continue to steer 612 square miles of excellence.

When its bond proposal failed in November, VISD heard many residents cite a lack of public inclusiveness in deciding how bond money would be spent.

Now is the opportunity to start reversing that sentiment and rebooting the public's confidence by giving them a seat at the table.

And when the Legislature next convenes, residents should let their lawmakers know the "lone finalist" law is not good public policy.

This opinion reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.


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