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Two Hamburg school districts need to ensure an open process for filling board seats

The unprecedented level of interest shown by 33 people who want to serve on the school boards of Hamburg’s two districts is to be applauded. The way in which those boards are handling the appointments, not so much.

The Hamburg and Frontier boards both have vacancies. Lynn M. Szalkowski resigned from the Frontier board Sept. 5. As The News has reported, the Hamburg board removed member Catherine Schrauth Forcucci on Sept. 2 amid much controversy and a failed attempt to hold proceedings behind closed doors.

Perhaps news coming out of the two districts prompted so many to apply for the posts. Residents have to be incensed, particularly at the long-running Hamburg School Board farce, but also at the financial problems at Frontier Central Schools.

Both boards decided to appoint replacements rather than spending the money on special elections, and sought letters and resumes from interested residents. The appointees would have to run in the next school election, in May. So far, so good. But the secretive manner in which the searches will be conducted is troubling.

Frontier received 15 responses and Hamburg 18. The numbers easily topped the handful of candidates for two open seats in both districts five months ago. But a lot has gone wrong in five months, stirring up a lot more interest in the board seats.

That is why it is critical that each process is transparent and will ensure that the best candidates are selected. Yet, both the Hamburg and Frontier boards have decided to vet these candidates in a manner that circumvents what should be an open and public process.

Hamburg board members initially planned to interview all the candidates in open session and make a decision. But they changed course when they got more than the six they thought would apply. Instead, they have scheduled a special meeting Nov. 5 to review the candidates. But they’re not sure how that process will play out. One thing they are sure of is that they’re not releasing the names of those interested in the position, although that information has been leaked.

Frontier decided to have several board members take a look at the letters and resumes and pare the crowd down to four and then discuss them.

Both boards have chosen to go down an unnecessarily complicated and secretive path. Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, summed it up to a News reporter: When people run for office they “tell the world about themselves. There typically is nothing secret about seeking elective office.”

The Frontier board president said it would be unfair to open the candidates to public scrutiny. But that is exactly what residents are entitled to do – scrutinize the candidates for public bodies with such important duties.