In picking Desmond Blackburn to be its next superintendent, the Brevard County School Board made a well-reasoned and historic choice.
By all accounts, Blackburn, who comes to Brevard from Broward County, where he was chief of school performance and accountability, will hit the ground running – well, walking, as he has promised to visit schools around the district with his walking shoes on.
He would also be the first African-American to lead the local school district and that – sadly – is still worthy of notation in 2015.
For the most part, the school board can be credited with being open and transparent in its search, as noted in a recent FLORIDA TODAY editorial. It began in the spring with an online survey that got input from 1,600 people on the top 10 qualities they wanted in a school leader. A committee of parents, teachers and business leaders interviewed the candidates in open forums. The board seemed to want to be as open as possible.
All of which begs a question:
After all that openness and engagement in the search process, why did board members feel the need to meet one-on-one in private interviews with the three finalists for the job, which is a direct report to the elected board? Put another way, what public purpose is served when public officials go behind closed doors to talk about the public’s business, short of national defense or contract negotiations?
The answer: Whatever the reason, no good public purpose is served by private meetings. It’s not necessary and the school board should reconsider doing so in the future.
Each school board member interviewed each of the three finalists in private before meeting in public to interview them again and vote on a new superintendent.
I’ve never seen that process used anywhere I’ve lived and it caught me by surprise. When Florida State University, for example, selected a president, interviews were never in private. The same for the University of Florida.
When I learned that was happening, first I sent a reporter over to the meetings to ask to be allowed in. We were denied.
Then I contacted the First Amendment Foundation to ask advice. My question was: Is it legal under Florida open records laws?
The answer was less than conclusive.
Barbara Peterson, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Florida, couldn’t find anything specifically on point on the one-on-one meetings, but pointed out that the Florida Supreme Court has ruled the Sunshine Law is to be construed “so as to frustrate all evasive devices.”
Pat Gleason of the Florida Attorney General’s Office, one of the state’s top experts on Sunshine Law, said in an email to Peterson on behalf of FLORIDA TODAY that the practice of meeting one-on-one is a “troublesome issue that comes up a lot.” But, she said, she also was unaware of any opinion by the attorney general office directly on point.
“I don’t see anything that prohibits individual interviews but the best course is to also have a full open discussion of the qualifications or interviews at a public meeting,” she said.
I also called our private attorney. Should we intervene and try to stop the process?
That answer also was less than conclusive.
Two completely separate questions had very different answers.
Was it legal? A definite maybe.
Was it good policy? Absolutely not.
Blackburn will inherit a school district that has much to feel good about, but with big and important challenges ahead, including concerns over openness, good communications and morale.
To help him win back public trust and the support of employees, the board would be wise to rid itself of practices that include private discussions of public business.
Original article here.