Friday, May 14, 2010

School district hiring is closed process


I read with interest the recent article in the Mountain Express about the school district's selection process for the position of assistant superintendent of Blaine County schools.

The public should take note. The hiring process was business as usual for our district and is exactly how our current superintendent was chosen—by a small and secretive committee composed of district staff, most of whom are on the inside circle, and a couple of parents handpicked by district leadership to preserve the illusion that the public is part of the process. (This committee always includes the treasurer, the director of human resources, the director of buildings and grounds, etc.) The pattern is familiar and predictable: After a supposedly "worldwide" search, someone previously known to, and favored by, the superintendent is chosen.

What a waste of time for all the "world-class" candidates who flew into our community on their own dime, thinking they really had a chance.

Districts that genuinely want to partner with the public to achieve the best outcomes do not operate in this fashion—they genuinely welcome and encourage public participation. In Aspen, for example, any interested member of the public can participate on important policy and hiring committees.

Right now, so hidden from public view are our district's hiring proceedings that the public is not even allowed to see final candidates' résumés. The reason given by the district is "candidate privacy." However, in the final stages of the selection process, once previous employers have been contacted for references, candidate résumés should be a matter of public record so as to prevent even the appearance of favoritism and insider dealing. Other more open and transparent organizations, like our county government, release résumés of candidates for important positions. Why do our elected school board members not feel the same sense of accountability to the public that our County Commissioners do?

Community members have asked for a more ethical membership selection process for important hiring and policy committees, but school board Chair Julie Dahlgren, who is supposed to be representing the public, has ignored the requests, which have been made repeatedly to Ms. Dahlgren both in private meetings and at public board meetings.

As in Aspen, the solution is simple: Allow all interested community members who wish to be on important committees to do so. If dozens of people signed up and it was deemed desirable to limit committee size, membership should be chosen on a random basis, and the public should comprise the overwhelming majority of the committee—again, to prevent even the appearance of insider-dealing and favoritism.

Naturally, this would put an end to the "good-old-boy" system that currently exists. The result would be a true partnership between the community and the district—a true meritocracy.

Now the district has another important vacancy to fill: the principal of the high school. The district should know that parents, in particular, will be watching this hiring process carefully. Our children's futures are at stake. Let's hope that the board and its staff, including the superintendent, use this as an opportunity to act with a spirit of fairness, inclusiveness, openness, transparency—and true partnership—with the public they are supposed to serve.

Elizabeth Schwerdtle is a resident of Hailey.

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