School board meeting in secret to consider superintendent candidates

Wichita school board members will meet behind closed doors this week to interview and discuss potential candidates for superintendent.

The board voted at the end of its regular meeting Monday to recess into a private meeting for more than a week – until noon Feb. 21 – to discuss personnel matters.

The lengthy private meeting is an unusual but legal move intended to protect the confidentiality of job candidates, said Tom Powell, the board’s attorney.

Powell cited a 1996 Kansas Attorney General’s opinion which he said allows elected bodies authority to recess into a private session one day and return on a subsequent day.

“I think it’s pretty routine across the state,” Powell said. “Particularly school districts do it like this.”

The Wichita school board recently launched its search for a superintendent to replace John Allison, who is leaving in June to head the Olathe school district.

School board president Sheril Logan said the board plans to consider one or more internal candidates for the superintendent post and wants to protect the employees’ privacy.

Wichita school board president Sheril Logan talks about the news that superintendent John Allison is a finalist for the same job in Olathe. (Dec. 14, 2016)

Meeting in private is necessary, Logan said, “so their name isn’t splashed all over the news, with you guys trying to get to them to interview them before they’ve interviewed with the board.”

The Kansas Open Meetings Act allows school boards to meet privately to discuss specific topics including matters related to non-elected personnel.

The personnel exemption, designed to protect the privacy interests of individuals, applies to talks about specific employees or job candidates but does not include discussions of overall policy or process.

In 2009, before board members hired Allison, they interviewed about a half-dozen candidates – some in person, some not – during closed meetings at North High School. The board shuttled candidates in and out of little-used entrances rather than the main doors to keep their identities from becoming public.

Local leaders that year questioned why the board chose to keep candidates’ names secret. During at least three prior superintendent searches, names were released and community members could question the finalists.

Logan, the board president, said the board has received community input about the next superintendent through an online survey and by meeting with groups of stakeholders.

Board members developed a profile outlining characteristics they want in the next superintendent, and they opted to seek applications from district employees before deciding whether to broaden their search.

“We’ve had way more community involvement and input this time than we’ve ever had in the past,” Logan said.

“We feel very confident that what our community’s telling us is what we put in our profile,” she said. “We’re gauging our next steps on that profile, looking at the candidates and making parallels: ‘They match to this, they match to that.’”

The district’s 13-member leadership team includes four assistant superintendents: Bill Faflick, secondary schools; Neil Guthrie, student support services; Tiffinie Irving, learning services; and Alicia Thompson, elementary schools. It also includes several executive directors and division directors.

Board members said Monday that they will reconvene at noon Feb. 21 at district headquarters. They could announce their intent to hire a new superintendent at that time or to continue searching.

The open meetings law prohibits board members from taking binding action during a private session.

“We haven’t closed any door yet,” Logan said. “We think we have good internal candidates, but until you really start doing what we’re doing right now, we don’t know. … Because we’re looking for a good match.”

The new superintendent would run the state’s largest school district, with enrollment around 50,000 and a budget of $662 million.

Asked whether community members would be able to question potential candidates in a public forum before the board extends a contract offer, as has happened during previous searches, Logan would not commit.

“Before, we had people coming in like John (Allison), who no one knew and had to get a feel for. Our (current) candidates, people know,” she said. “They have lived and worked in our community for a long time, all of them. So they’re not an unknown quantity.”

Logan said private board discussions, which could happen at any time and location over the coming week, are a necessary aspect of searching for a new superintendent.

“At some point we have to do the work that you can’t do as a whole community, in the sense of physically talking to the people and negotiating whatever is the right thing,” Logan said.

“So that’s the work that we’re doing in this little time period now. Then we’ll come back to our meeting on the 21st and lay out exactly what the next steps are going to be.”

Wichita superintendent John Allison reacts to oral arguments presented at the Kansas Supreme Court on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016.

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias

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