The Pasco School Board hired a consultant and decided how to search for its next superintendent during closed-door sessions, violating the state open meetings law, says an assistant state attorney general.
School board President Ryan Brault told the Herald that board members closed the doors to the public after their legal counsel said it was allowed.
But Nancy Krier, state assistant attorney general on open government, said not making those decisions during public meetings could open the district up to legal action.
However, it’s unclear if that will affect the board’s vote in an open meeting April 16 to hire Michelle Whitney as its next superintendent.
“Final decisions may not be invalidated, even if other decisions in the chain are,” Krier told the Herald.
Some district parents have questioned Whitney’s hire because she was the sole internal candidate and she appeared less qualified than other candidates.
But the concern most cited by parents who talked to the Herald was the lack of transparency in the hiring process and the fact that only eight days passed between when the five candidates were announced and the position was filled. They also said school board members have been reluctant to talk about the superintendent search.
“I wish the board would have taken more time, called back finalists, spent more time with them, and made a decision they could feel confident about,” parent Christina Johnson, who lives in west Pasco, told the Herald in an email. “It seemed to me that the majority of the board meeting where they elected Ms. Whitney was spent defending their decision instead of being excited about their choice. That is unfortunate for Ms. Whitney and the entire community.”
Some board members told the Herald the process was thorough, they disagreed that they moved too quickly and denied allegations their selection was a foregone conclusion.
“If we knew from the beginning that we wanted an internal candidate, we would have done that,” Brault said. “It was important to know the qualities wanted by the community and to look outside.”
Board defends process
Board member Steve Christensen said the public needs to be involved in district decisions but making too much information available can lead to rifts between public opinion and the board’s decision, causing a division that can set the district back.
He said the board never discussed having public forums for the candidates.
“I think the fact that we have people who are concerned shows it legitimately could have been handled differently,” he said. “But we did a good job. I don’t think we would have come to a different decision regardless of the process.”
Board Vice President Scott Lehrman was adamant the board made the right choice and that while there has been some criticism of the process, there also has been positive feedback about choosing Whitney.
“I think I had ample time and information to make an informed decision,” he said.
Board members Sherry Lancon and Amy Phillips did not return Herald calls on the issue.
Board told closed discussion “allowable”
After Superintendent Saundra Hill publicly announced her retirement in February, the school board met in closed executive sessions seven times before hiring Whitney.
Board agendas said the legal reason for excluding the public was to “evaluate the qualifications of an applicant for public employment or to review the performance of a public employee.”
During one closed meeting, the board agreed by consensus to hire consultant Leland Goeke, who had previously worked with the district, to help with the search.
Brault said he could not immediately recall what Goeke was paid but it was below the amount set by state law that requires approval in a public meeting.
Goeke recommended in a closed session that the board use a search task force of staff, teachers, students, parents and others appointed by the board along with an online public survey to determine what qualities to look for in a superintendent candidate, Brault said.
Goeke also suggested the top candidates meet the task force at an April 8 reception. The board agreed by consensus to those recommendations during the closed meetings, Brault said.
He said Sarah Thornton, assistant superintendent for operations and legal affairs, “advised that the discussions in executive session were allowable.”
Two other executive sessions in April were spent interviewing superintendent candidates as allowed under state law.
Individuals can challenge in court
Krier explained that discussing the qualifications of individual candidates is allowed in closed executive sessions. But discussions about how a school district or public agency plans to go about hiring for a position must be conducted in public.
Boards are free to rely on a set policy or precedents or to appoint specific individuals to design hiring procedures, Krier said.
“But there should be some discussion in public of that policy or whether they are going to go that way,” she said.
An individual can take a public agency to court if a decision was improperly made during closed meetings, she said. Courts can then overturn or nullify those decisions.
But that wouldn’t necessarily affect related decisions that came later and were properly executed. The board’s unanimous vote to hire Whitney was made in an open public session as required.
Some say search felt rushed
Johnson and others said they heard little about the superintendent search until the final two weeks when they learned of the candidate reception for only the task force members.
When some on the task force couldn’t attend, Brault decided to open it to the public.
The names of the top five candidates were publicly announced a few hours before the event. Reporters were asked not to talk to the candidates because district officials said they hadn’t been told to prepare for media questions, and the board wanted the candidates to focus on community members.
While pleased when the reception was opened to the public, some parents who attended said the format — candidates standing at different tables in the student mall of Chiawana High School to field questions — was awkward and made it difficult to compare them.
Brault agreed not all the questions the public asked were pertinent or proper, with one candidate being asked if they preferred cats or dogs or whether they were married and had children, which employers are not permitted to ask.
It also led to questions about Whitney’s qualifications, as some of the other candidates appeared to have more experience than the 19-year Pasco district veteran who works as executive director of teaching and learning but is still working on finishing her superintendent credentials. She will spend the next year working with Hill, during the transition.
When parent Aaron Richardson tried to talk to the school board at its meeting April 14 about the candidates, Brault stopped him and said that topic was inappropriate because it was a personnel issue.
“Mr. Richardson returned to the podium to state that he would like to see the district have more public meetings, summits and task forces that are open to the public as opposed to an invited group of individuals. ‘We are heading in the right direction and I hope to see that continue to happen,’ ” according to minutes from that meeting.
Two days later, the board hired Whitney.
“I was shocked,” said Erin Hall-Lewis of central Pasco, who has four children in Pasco schools. “It just seemed like it was so sudden (after the reception).”
Johnson and other parents said they looked at other superintendent searches and found that more than half of 25 Washington school districts since last fall used public candidate interviews or released candidate information weeks before a board decision.
In the past in the Tri-Cities, the Richland School Board held public candidate forums when it hired Superintendent Rick Schulte to replace the fired Jim Busey in 2013. And Pasco had individual candidate forums when Hill was hired in 2002.
“There really wasn’t much public input,” said Greg Olson, the teachers’ union representative and member of the task force. He said he’s been hearing similar concerns from some teachers.
Generally, districts hold public forums for the top candidates, said Gene Sharratt, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council.
Sharratt previously worked as a superintendent hiring consultant and worked with the Richland district when it hired Busey. He noted there’s no requirement that districts give the public a chance to meet candidates.
Alan Burke, executive director of the Washington State School Directors’ Association, agreed there is no one-size-fits-all approach to hiring a superintendent.
Some methods are more common than others, such as hiring search consultants or arranging public forums with individual candidates. But others are more restrictive. It’s up to each board, he said.
“They’re elected officials. They have the ability to do what they need to do,” he said.
Most pleased with Whitney
Jean Ryckman, a former Pasco board member and a search task force member, said she thought the board’s selection methods and eventual hire were the best.
“I felt like this process was a little more stringent,” said Ryckman, who participated in the process used to hire Hill in 2002. “I thought the district went out of its way to be as inclusive as possible.”
The other candidates also were excellent, Ryckman said, noting that Superintendent Kevin McKay of the Zillah School District and Susana Reyes of the Mead School District were particularly qualified. However, she added, her preferences are secondary to what the board thinks is best.
Ryckman has heard some negative comments but said most community members she’s spoken with are pleased with Whitney.
Public input was key to the board’s process, Brault said, noting the survey and task force were critical as was the feedback from the candidate reception. The district posted a timeline on its website showing it planned to hire someone no later than April 28.
He emphasized, though, that it’s the board’s responsibility to determine the best candidate, including considering information from résumés and interviews, not privy to the public.
“I do believe the community supports our decision,” Brault said.