Editorial: Superintendent search should have been a time for transparency

Shame on the Savannah-Chatham County school board, and its erratic president, Jolene Byrne, for trying to hide critical information about the future of the school district from the public.

 

The school board has been in the process of making a huge decision that will affect the district and its 36,000 students for years to come – hiring a new superintendent who will succeed Thomas Lockamy who is retiring in June after 12 years at the helm. Late Thursday night, it was announced that Savannah-Chatham Deputy Superintendent Ann Levett was selected to be the next superintendent.

 

No time for secrecy

Local taxpayers spent $31,500 on the search to find a replacement. Hundreds applied for the job, and the board’s search firm whittled the list down to four finalists. That was intentional. Had the finalist list been trimmed to three people, the board would have been legally bound to announce the names of those three candidates. But by holding it to just four finalists, the board has a napkin-thin legal screen to hide behind and keep those names private.

District spokesman Kurt Hetager claimed the board was not trying to minimize public scrutiny or debate about a new superintendent. Rather, they just want to be discreet, he said. He’s not fooling anyone.

The period for discretion ended when taxpayer dollars were spent on the search firm and when hundreds of people willingly applied. Taxpayers are entitled to know what they got for their money and what they might be getting.

 

A sweet pay package

The school board has said it is offering the next superintendent a $300,000 salary plus benefits. This sweet package will make that person the highest paid public servant in Chatham County. To argue that the hiring process for such a job must be cloaked in privacy is ridiculous.

“This way protects the privacy of the candidates,” Mr. Hetager added, trying to defend the indefensible.

No this way isn’t protecting the names of the applicants. No one forced them to apply for this job at its six-figure paycheck. If they seriously wanted privacy then they should have steered clear of this search. This process isn’t about protecting the candidates. No, it seems designed to protect Ms. Byrne and other elected school board members from the prying eyes of citizens and taxpayers.

 

Error, Ms. Byrne

Indeed, Ms. Byrne, a first-term board president, ham-handedly attempted to prevent any form of transparency as the final interviews of the four finalists began Thursday morning – at a neutral site at the DeSoto Hilton Hotel, a few blocks away from the school district’s headquarters.

“This is not going to work,” Ms. Byrne shouted before she asked the search firm representative to have the Savannah Morning News removed from the second floor elevator area. “Someone told her we were on the second floor.”

That’s called good reporting.

No, this can and should work, and Ms. Byrne should know. After all, she doesn’t seem to have a problem releasing information about the school district, whether it involves clunky school buses or failed school policy, when such disclosure is on her terms and she decides what the public needs to know. Unfortunately, she doesn’t embrace a broader view of transparency, especially regarding the most critical decision this board will make.

 

Calling the cops? Really?

Desoto Hilton Managing Director Jeffrey Kmiec then threatened to call the police if the Savannah Morning News refused to leave the second floor where the interviews were conducted.

That’s no way to engage the public in thoughtful debate about the future leadership of the school district.

In order to ensure transparency and to protect the interest of the citizens and taxpayers, the Savannah Morning News researched and identified the people who went into the meeting room where the school board conducted all of their closed door interviews.

 

Public should be encouraged and informed

Identifying the finalists allows an informed public to compare and contrast their options before a final decision is made. Ms. Byrne and elected school board members should be encouraging such public participation, not sabotaging the effort.

As is often the case of elected officials who stand in the way of sunshine and the public’s need to know, Ms. Byrne and the board failed miserably.

The final four candidates who were interviewed Thursday were Levett; Philadelphia City Schools Chief Academic Support Officer Cheryl Logan; Kansas City (Kansas) Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Jayson Strickland; and St. Louis Public Schools Deputy Superintendent of Academics David Hardy.

To most people, Dr. Levett may have been the only familiar name on the short list, which is why it’s useful for citizens to know all the finalists, so they can do their own homework and compare and contrast all the candidates who were seeking this key, highly paid job.

Dr. Levett has been deputy superintendent for the local school district since September 2013. The Savannah native has been a professional educator for 41 years.

Let’s hope Ms. Byrne and the rest of the board do a better job of embracing transparency in the future.

Ann Levett picked as next Savannah-Chatham public schools superintendent

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