How Muscogee County School Board kept superintendent search a secret

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 13, 2013 

When David Lewis applied to be superintendent in Polk County, Fla., his name was listed on the district's website along with 22 other candidates vying for the job.

The website also contained each candidate's application letter, resume and letters of recommendation for the perusal of the public. The names of Lewis, an associate superintendent with the district, and two other finalists were posted later, along with dates when the community could meet them.

The transparency of Polk County school officials stands in stark contrast to the Muscogee County School Board, which conducted its superintendent search under a shroud of secrecy.

On Tuesday, the board voted unanimously to declare Lewis -- who was passed up for the Polk County job -- the "sole finalist" for the Muscogee County superintendent position. But prior to that, Lewis was just an "undisclosed candidate," along with other applicants whose names still have not been released to the public.

Some of the contrast is due to differences between public access laws in Georgia and Florida.

Hollie Manheimer, of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said Florida's open records laws are among the best in the nation, while Georgia's aren't as robust.

Georgia law only requires that the board release "all documents concerning as many as three persons under consideration whom the agency has determined to be the best qualified for the position" at least 14 days prior to hiring a superintendent. The law further states: "Prior to the release of these documents, an agency may allow such a person to decline being considered further for the position rather than have documents pertaining to such person released."

Under Florida law, the whole process is open.

But the board's handling of the process also differed from the last search for a Muscogee County School District school superintendent and the recent selection of a Chattahoochee Valley Library System director. The names of Susan Andrews, the district's last superintendent, and the new library director, Alan Harkness, were both released along with two other finalists for public scrutiny. The community was also given an opportunity to meet them at forums.

School board chairman Rob Varner said the board fulfilled the "as many as three persons" state requirement by choosing one candidate. He said the board didn't release other names out of concern for the applicants.

"A lot of that is dictated by the candidates themselves," he said. "We have to be sensitive to the men and women who subject themselves to the interview process so that they don't jeopardize themselves with their boards of education or superintendents."

Greg Ellington, an attorney representing the school district, said the board was in "full compliance with the law in releasing documents only with respect to Mr. Lewis."

Manheimer said Georgia law, which was revised in 2012, no longer requires interviews to be open to the public. But she believes the school board circumvented state law by releasing the name of only one finalist and not the top three candidates.

"I disagree with the interpretation of the Muscogee County School Board, and it is my understanding, based on the old and new laws, that the information pertaining to three finalists should've been released 14 days prior to the meeting at which that decision was made," she said. "I think that was the law prior to 2012, and I believe it's the law today."

Manheimer said she's been with the foundation 17 years and has received many complaints about lack of transparency.

"These types of positions, such as superintendents of school, are of the most keen interest to the public," she said. "So it seems to me it would be in the best interest of the entire district to release as many candidates as possible. But I've seen this before, and it's a common problem under the law in Georgia."

Superintendent salaries

Muscogee and Polk counties also handled the release of salary information differently. Polk County School officials posted the salary range for the superintendent position on the website from the very beginning, and printed it in ads for the position. The range was $210,000 to $260,000 annually plus a benefits package.

But in a recent interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Varner said the details of Lewis' contract are not yet complete, and "until such time that it's done and voted on by the board and approved, the details are not going to be released to the public." He said negotiations between the board and potential superintendents must be done in private to avoid interference.

"The public doesn't negotiate the contract with the superintendent. That's the board's job," he said. "Now, once it's done, it's very public for anyone to see. And if they want to criticize, they're free to do it, and if they want to salute and applaud it, they're free to do it. But the decision isn't made by the public, it's made by the Board of Education."

Manheimer, on the other hand, said a candidate's salary information isn't subject to closure under state law.

"There's no reason to withhold information," she said. "It's not like private medical information or credit card information.

Salaries have always been public in Georgia and all the documents surrounding that. There's nothing privileged about how much you're going to pay your superintendent."

Ellington, the board's attorney, said: "Until two parties mutually agree to terms, there is no contract. When the parties enter into a contract, it will be released."

Numerous applicants

The Muscogee County School board began its superintendent search about 16 months ago when Andrews announced she was resigning from the position. The first search firm hired by the board, McPherson & Jacobson LLC, provided the board with about 22 applicants, and four were chosen as "semifinalists."

Board members interviewed the semifinalists Dec. 5 in closed sessions, but never released their names to the public. Five days later, they discussed the candidates, also in closed session, and concluded that none met guidelines the board developed with community input.

When the search stalled in January, the board fired McPherson & Jacobson, and hired Atlanta attorney Glenn Brock as a search consultant. Brock provided the board with 36 applications, and three applicants were interviewed in closed sessions.

One candidate, a black male who has not been identified, was interviewed April 28 at Brock's office in Atlanta.

Board members said they wanted to hire him, but he rejected the opportunity before they could make an offer.

Nearly a month later, Polk County announced its new superintendent, selected over Lewis and another finalist. Colleagues told Lewis about the Muscogee County job, and he filed an application with Brock.

Lewis and another candidate were interviewed in Atlanta on June 21. But only Lewis' name -- and information -- has been released.

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