Law changes upend superintendent search, forcing committee to shift approach, timing
State law forced tweaks Tuesday to the School Committee’s proposed process for selecting a new school superintendent, but a hire should still be announced well before fall elections, with a target date of Oct. 22.
Members have had to make changes to accommodate the state’s new open meeting laws, interpreted as mandating that throughout a search process there can only be one School Committee-related meeting outside the public eye – causing tension in protecting the privacy of potential candidates who will want to protect their current jobs.
In two special meetings this month, following a July 1 meeting in which they heard recommendations from the search firm hired to manage the process, members sorted through revisions of the search schedule and discussed community representation in the process, emerging from Tuesday’s meeting with a revised schedule and a final proposal for the makeup of the group that will conduct candidate interviews.
Despite clear signals from the staff of search managers Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates that there is a tension between concluding this process in the first couple of months of the school year and attracting the best candidates, the committee had no discussion of this timing issue in either of its follow-up meetings this month.
The changes in state law governing open meetings passed in 2009 but went into effect this month. With that in mind, a revised superintendent search proposal passed at the July 14 meeting needed to be revised again, Mayor David Maher explained.
By mid-July, the process looked like this: The search firm would meet with the committee privately to review résumés and forward the top seven to nine candidates to a superintendent search interview committee – a group made up largely of community members acting as an agent for the committee as a whole.
This “SSIC” would do private interviews and forward its top five semifinalist candidates to the School Committee, which would interview and name three finalists, again in a closed-door process. A series of public meetings vetting the finalists would be followed by a last closed-door School Committee meeting selecting the final candidate. This timeline, similar to past superintendent searches, had four private meetings. But it no longer “passes muster,” as Maher said, under the new rules.
“This is a problem with the law – the unintended circumstances,” Maher said. “It makes it very, very difficult to keep [the process] confidential and attract the best candidates.”
The new law requires that there can only be one private “executive session” meeting of the School Committee for the entire process, Maher said, which means even meetings in which the committee is reviewing résumés must be public. Maher – who with his staff seems to be doing the planning work – was clearly forced to determine at which step it was most important to have résumés considered in a non-public meeting.
The stage chosen for the closed-door session will be the second phase in which the SSIC will go through the top résumés identified by Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates and identify and interview five to eight candidates. “This phase is subject to the open meeting law, and the SSIC will need to vote to go into executive session in order to hold these interviews in private as to protect the identity of the applicants,” Maher’s proposed schedule reads.
With this new schedule, the narrowing of the résumés to a recommended top seven to nine résumés will be done out of the public eye by the search firm, without the School Committee input originally planned. Only after the SSIC chooses five to eight semifinalist candidates, interviews them and identifies three finalists will the committee as a whole get involved. While its members will interview the three finalists, these interviews will be during public meetings, as well as their deliberations on selecting the final preferred candidate. In the original proposal – and in previous superintendent searches – these interviews and selection were done behind closed doors.
This schedule was passed after consulting with city solicitors Nancy Glowa and Arthur Goldberg, as well as Massachusetts Association of School Committees executive director Glenn Koocher, Maher said. (School department legal counsel Maureen MacFarlane was on vacation, he said.) Approval of this version was obtained only the day before the Tuesday meeting, just in time for the committee to approve unanimously.
Changes in committee
Because only one committee meeting can be a closed-door session, Maher proposed changes to the make-up of the SSIC. In the July 14 meeting, there had been agreement for no School Committee representation on the SSIC, originally charged to whittle to five the seven to nine candidates forwarded from a private meeting with the School Committee and search firm.
Member Kathleen Kelly had argued at that meeting to have “as little School Committee membership as possible – maybe none” on the SSIC, which would be made up of community members. She argued that since the committee as a whole would select the membership, outline its responsibilities and make the final decisions, “the process is heavily weighted on the School Committee from beginning to end. I would like [the SSIC] to be heavily weighted to community input,” she said. The result was unanimous agreement for no committee members in the group.
With the law changes, without representation on the SSIC the committee would have no input at all until the final three candidates were identified.
Instead, now there will be three yet-to-be-determined committee members among the SSIC. (Four is a member quorum and triggers an open meeting.) The addition swells the proposed group to 18 people. In the July 1 meeting, the search firm recommended that this committee should be no more than 16 members, and recommended it be about eight to 12 people.
With an eye to getting that group down to at least 16 members, Maher stressed that while all interested people are eligible for membership, he wanted to place an emphasis on anyone meeting more than one category. For example, he said, there may be a parent who is also part of a local business or a nonprofit school community partner. They are also committed to having diversity among the SSIC, he said.
Vision for future
The limitations on the committee’s role in candidate reviews led to discussion of how members could impart their “vision” for the district’s future and a new superintendent. Kelly, participating Tuesday via conference call, said the configuration “speaks to how seriously the responsibility to whoever the three School Committee members are to represent the committee as a whole rather than individual perspective.”
“We have discussed in the past the importance of getting consensus of what we are looking for.” she asked. “What is our vision?”
Maher said the search firm was being paid “to craft that for you.” It would develop a profile based on community input and present it to the committee, and “if there is not consensus,” he said, “it will be refined.” The committee seemed satisfied.
Anyone in Cambridge can submit their input about what they want to see in a new superintendent via the survey here.