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COLUMN: New law doesn't improve hiring process for superintendent

Doug Sullivan was hired as superintendent in 2009 and the search for his successor is, if nothing else, a prime example of how much has changed, and not for the better, in the hiring process of government officials since then.

The Dickinson Public School Board voted to contract and pay Ray and Associates $16,000 to conduct the search for the next superintendent. Back in 2009, Vince Reep, business manager and director of personnel for Dickinson Public Schools, told the board the district had the resources to conduct the search internally.

He was quoted in the Dickinson Press: "The bottom line is the board is going to make the decision on who the next superintendent will be, so you'll keep that control no matter what, whether you hire an outside agency or if you direct the HR department and the rest of the staff," Reep said. "When you do it internally, it's been my experience that you have a shorter lag time for information when applications come in."

The board took Reep's advice and voted to do the search internally and saved the $14,500 Ray and Associates fee at that time.

Back in 2009, all the applicants' names were public record, but that changed after the last Legislature passed 44-04-18.27, the law that allows government agencies to keep the names of applicants confidential until the final three or more.

The law was championed by former Gov. Ed Schafer because he was unhappy with the candidates for the presidency at the University Of North Dakota. He blamed the open record requirement as the reason the university did not get more qualified candidates.

Senate Bill 2152 was written and expanded to a law to keep names of applicants secret for all government officials' applicants until three or more were chosen as finalists. Newly elected Gov. Doug Burgum spoke in favor of the bill and all of our local legislators voted for the bill except Sen. Rich Wardner.

I spoke out at the time against the bill because I doubted that requiring the records be open to the public really made a difference in hiring qualified candidates. I asked the question to anyone who would listen: Hadn't Dickinson State University hired a more-than-qualified president in Thomas Mitzel?

The Dickinson Public School Board cited the new law as one of the reasons for contracting with Ray and Associates in the current search.

During the last search, any parent, student or person could review the applicants to see who had applied. They could check to see if anyone who worked for the district or had in the past had applied, or look to see if any candidates were from North Dakota or from our region. Any citizen could compare the applicants to the finalists and judge the Dickinson Public School Board performance during the selection and hiring process. The new law doesn't allow for any of that public review.

This search, the Dickinson Public Schools used $16,000 of taxpayer money for a consultant to conduct the search and follow the letter of the law. What we as taxpayers received for that $16,000 was 39 applications, later whittled down to 10. Four of those were chosen to be interviewed, two who were chosen as finalists after interviews on Thursday, April 12, and finally another finalist released to the public Monday, April 16. The final candidate's name was released after I read a statement informing the board that they had violated the law by only naming two finalists.

The investment of $16,000 of taxpayer money by the Dickinson Public School Board resulted in the names released to the public of, in the words of the board president, two qualified candidates and a less qualified third. The third name was released, after consultation with the North Dakota School Boards Association, to meet what was required by the letter of the new law.

Thanks to the passage of ND Senate Bill 2152 into law last year, there are more questions than answers to the process of hiring a new superintendent this year.

To help me answer some of those questions, on Wednesday I delivered a written open records request to the Dickinson School Board asking for the names of all four candidates that were interviewed. I also requested any records or communications between the board and Ray and Associates, and the North Dakota School Boards Association, in the past week.

I expect that they will provide me the requested records, but if they refuse, then provide me the North Dakota statutes that prevent them.

The big question I have for the North Dakota governor and the 2017 Legislature, however, is how is the hiring process for a new superintendent better than before the new law was passed?