The overriding need to hire the best possible superintendent for the troubled Buffalo public school system offers justification for the Buffalo School Board's decision not to require a public forum for its candidate finalists. Without confidentiality, there undoubtedly would have been fewer top-shelf applicants for a job crucial to the recovery of city schools.
That said, the board has erred repeatedly and seriously in keeping the search process itself secret by not inviting public review of the way it is going about this critically vital business. The state's Open Meetings Law has been broken twice, and the public has been frozen out of public business.
There is an important distinction to be made. In deciding how to look for and hire a new school superintendent -- the most important decision facing the City of Buffalo, search committee members argue -- this board failed a concerned public. Decision-making regarding the process should have been openly done all along, and the process now should be outlined in public immediately to correct that error.
But in granting confidentiality to candidates, the board has broken no law, and has simply made a concession to necessity. Sometimes competing values conflict, in this case a desire to involve the public in evaluating the finalists and the confidentiality needed to recruit applicants from a shrinking national pool of qualified school superintendent candidates. It has been increasingly common for head-hunting firms to have to persuade already-employed superintendents or assistant superintendents to apply for open jobs that no longer attract floods of applicants.
The most highly qualified candidates are asked to risk their current employment by entering a competition for a new job. The shrinking pool allows them to demand confidentiality to lessen those personal risks. To lure the best, school boards nationwide increasingly must comply.
Given the fiscal condition of Buffalo and its school system, and the tough challenge in meeting stricter pupil performance standards, this is no time for reduced expectations.
Search committee members cite the loss of top-tier candidates when confidentiality wasn't upheld in an earlier search, one that led to a less-qualified superintendent whose flawed administration left recently retired Superintendent Marion Canedo a mess to clean up. In other cities, candidates have withdrawn when their names were leaked.
School administration organizations say searches once were open but that started to change about five years ago, and confidentiality agreements now predominate. Some states, including Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Colorado, limit that practice; others, like Illinois and Oregon, protect candidate privacy.
In New York, the board's mandate under the Open Meetings Law was to discuss the idea of a confidentiality agreement, and outline the process to be followed in this search, openly and publicly. Instead, a public advisory board was named but was convened only once for a general introductory meeting. And the School Board itself developed its search policy in a closed-door meeting and then in a board retreat, where the process was discussed in private from start to finish.
That is a violation of duty as well as law. Because the Open Meetings Law has no real penalty beyond public scorn, it can be flouted repeatedly. The law clearly needs teeth, and the State Legislature should act on current proposals to add fines or other penalties for repeated intentional offenses.
This page always has championed transparency, openness and accountability in government. We will continue to do so. But in this exceptional case, the School Board's offer of confidentiality to candidates is justified by the need to provide the best possible leadership for a struggling school system, and in doing so to provide the best possible chance for success to Buffalo's schoolchildren.