When Clark County School District Superintendent Walt Rulffes announced his retirement in March, school board trustees faced the daunting task of finding the next chief officer for Nevada's largest school district — the fifth largest district in the nation.
Making no bones about their desire to circumvent Nevada's open-meeting laws — under which candidate names and applications would be public and trustees would have to vet all candidates in the open — trustees elected to hire a private search firm based in Omaha, Neb. McPherson & Jacobson was commissioned to locate prospective candidates, filter through the applicants and pick three superintendent finalists for board consideration.
Hiring a search firm meant that the board would not need to deliberate and decide publicly, as required by state open-meeting law. Instead, Clark County residents would have to sit on their hands until a reportedly disinterested third party — yet hired by and answerable to the board — sorted through the candidates (49 at last count) and produced a short list of finalists.
Trustees argued that hiring a search firm would ensure that the best candidates would apply because they wouldn't fear retribution from current employers. Also, trustees could maintain focus on the board's day-to-day responsibilities.
Citizens wanting more information on the candidates should not worry, said the trustees, because each of them was adamantly committed to an open and transparent process. Everything trustees did in the process would be transparent, transparent, transparent. The public would know what the trustees knew. Trustees would know what the public knew.
While transparency normally refers to the unobstructed transit of light through an object, such as through clear glass, what trustees were offering was something more akin to frosted windows or a fogged-up windshield. Perhaps you could see some outlines through it, but even then details were fuzzy and hazy — more like those of a smoke-filled, back-room deal, as one person later put it.
"While the open-meeting law may allow for this secrecy, it also does allow a board to have an open process. And, right now in the community there's a feeling that a lot of decisions are being made in smoke-filled back-room deals," said Lorraine Alderman, school board candidate for district D (Trustee Larry Mason's area).
And it wasn't as though the trustees were really out of the loop, after all. Firm representatives publicly encouraged trustees to submit their own lists of prospective candidates. Firm representatives also asked trustees to submit questions for candidates to answer, and trustees complied. Then reports surfaced of "contact lists" regarding community "stakeholder" groups and special invitations to business leaders. At that point, the Nevada Policy Research Institute made a public-records request for copies of all communications between trustees, their staff and the search firm.
So, what doesn't the public know?
Well, they don't know that school board President Terri Janison submitted several names to the search firm — on behalf of others, of course. Even if Janison was merely serving as a conduit, however, was not the declared purpose of hiring a search firm to keep trustees out of the initial process? Would not the integrity of the process have been better protected if Janison had simply said to people, "Here's the contact information for the search firm. Good luck."?
Instead, the president of the board of school trustees volunteered to submit at least one name to the firm.
"Another contact for you please … She [Dr. Maria Garcia-Sheets] called today expressing interest in our position so I told her I would pass her contact information to you," wrote Janison in an e-mail to representatives. Janison also mentioned that she met Garcia-Sheets when Janison was part of a committee interviewing Garcia-Sheets for another job.
Prior to volunteering to pass along Garcia-Sheets' name, Janison also forwarded — rather than providing contact information — candidate recommendations from Bob Forbuss, a former CCSD school board trustee and namesake for one of Clark County's elementary schools.
"Bob Forbuss was a school board member many years ago in CCSD and a very involved member of the community," wrote Janison as she passed along Forbuss' candidate recommendations: Peter Gorman, superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools; Mike Hanson, superintendent of Fresno Unified School Districts; Christopher Steinhauser, superintendent of Long Beach Unified School District; and Eric Smith, commissioner of the Florida Department of Education.
Perhaps most confusing was that Janison was the conduit for a prospect suggested by Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of Great City Schools. Why was that confusing? Because the board had suggested that the search firm contact the Council for input — implying that there was no objective need for Janison to attempt to serve as a conduit for the executive director of the Council.
Would it not have been more protective of the process for Janison to say, "Mr. Casserly, thank you for your recommendation [of Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District]. However, in order to protect the integrity of the process, I prefer you contact the search firm yourself."?
While Janison served as a conduit for possible prospects, Trustee Larry Mason made an actual candidate recommendation of his own — Dr. Stan Paz, currently vice-president for urban marketing at the massive textbook publisher, McGraw-Hill, and previously the superintendent of Arizona's Tucson Unified School District.
Why Mason thinks Paz would be good for Clark County is unknown: Mason has not discussed his reasons publicly. Instead, an out-of-state, third-party organization will decipher whether Paz (if he actually applied) or someone else is good for Clark County.
Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org/.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Mr. Forbuss recently served as a board-appointed member of the school district's Oversight Panel for School Facilities. NPRI regrets the error.