Searching for a new school superintendent in Maryland sometimes takes the skills of a CIA agent, including clandestine meetings and flights to faraway places.
Three Maryland school boards are nearing the end of searches for new superintendents, and each one has included a closed process during the last several months. In other secret searches, the names of the candidates are kept confidential and interviews with the school board are often held in airports or airport hotels so that candidates can fly in and out without being seen. And even the top contenders may never set foot in school offices.
The state school board and Baltimore County's board have refused to release information even about how many finalists they are interviewing or when those interviews might take place. Howard County has chosen a different path, deciding to make the names of the last two finalists public Monday.
The confidential approach is not unusual and is necessary, the school boards say, if they are going to attract the best applicants, who may fear their current jobs would be in jeopardy.
"We have had applicants who have asked for confidentiality. ... People are concerned that if their name is public, it could adversely affect them," said Lawrence Schmidt, president of the Baltimore County school board.
Baltimore City schools CEO Andrés Alonso said he would not have applied for his job if the process had been open to the public. "It was important that my effectiveness in my role as deputy chancellor [in New York City] not be compromised in any way by the possibility in Baltimore. I never met with the board in Baltimore. We met in College Park and BWI," said Alonso, who visited the city for the first time after he took the job.
But other people argue that an open process is a far better way to choose a new leader because the candidates' names are made public and the community has a chance to read their resumes, interview them and become familiar with them. And once a choice is made, the community has a greater comfort level with the board's final choice.
"Would you rather hire someone secretly and then have to make the case or would you rather have public comment and have the stellar candidate make the case for you?" asked Paul Lemle, Howard County Education Association president.
The Howard school board is doing just that by holding a community forum between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Monday to give members of the public an hour to ask questions of each of the two finalists. The board expects to select a superintendent this coming week.
A closed process leaves board members more open for criticism, particularly for a board that has come under fire for its past decisions, Lemle said. Howard County's board has been beset by infighting recently, and is trying to get one of its elected members ousted.
Other states have had more open processes in school superintendent searches. In Florida, every candidate's application is available to the public and is often online. Interviews with the board are done in public session and are even sometimes shown live on television. When school boards in Florida sit down to make a final decision, they do so at a public meeting.
"I think the advantages are that it is transparent and open," said Wayne Blanton, Florida Association of School Administrators executive director. "There is a lot of community involvement."
In particular, Blanton said, the public helps vet the candidates. The press, unions, PTAs and other interest groups spend time digging up background information on each candidate and sometimes turn up facts that a search firm or the school board doesn't.
"I think there are so many people who have the opportunity to look at the background of the candidate, that there are no surprises," said Blanton, who has been conducting searches for Florida school districts.
In Maryland, there are no laws or regulations regarding searches. Interviews and appointments of superintendents are an executive function and therefore do not have to be done in an open meeting, according to findings when three cases were brought before an open meetings compliance board. The only requirement is that boards discuss how they will involve the public at an open meeting, according to the state department of education.
Schmidt said earlier this week that the Baltimore County board was "very pleased with the number of excellent candidates" who have applied. He added that the board has offered confidentiality to candidates, but that if they are comfortable with their names being released in the final stages, the board would consider opening the process.
State school board President James DeGraffenreidt said the board had to maintain confidentiality in its search.
"Each of [the candidates] currently serve in high-profile positions and many would not be able to remain effective in their positions if it became known that they were considering the Maryland Superintendent position," he said in an email.
Schmidt and DeGraffenreidt say the public was involved in the beginning stages of the process when the boards asked residents to tell them what they wanted in a new superintendent. From those comments, they say, the boards created a profile of the characteristics that were important to the public. But advocates for open searches say that process is far different than allowing education stakeholders to interview the final candidates.
Some counties have conducted open searches or partially open searches. In Montgomery County last year, representatives of different groups interviewed the finalists in private and gave the board their perceptions. And about a decade ago, Baltimore City held an open forum and allowed the public to interview the three finalists for the CEO position.
Open searches were commonplace a decade ago, but today they are more closed, according to Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
Superintendent jobs have gotten more difficult as the economy worsened and administrators have been required to make unpopular decisions to cut staff and programs, he said. About half of the 13,680 superintendents in the nation have indicated that they will leave their positions in the next three years.
With fewer experienced superintendents looking for jobs, search firms have gotten more aggressive about going out and recruiting candidates, he said, and many of those candidates don't want their names made public.
"If you are going to go after an experienced superintendent who is doing a good job, then that superintendent is not going to go through an open search," he said.
Search firms and boards have gone to great lengths to try to control the information about searches, which is made harder by social media.
"The consultants have gotten very good at these stealth searches," Domenech said.
Blanton in Florida said he does not believe that requiring searches to be open has hindered his ability to attract candidates. He said most urban districts receive 25 candidates and rural districts far more.
"That shows me that people are not afraid to apply. I have been doing searches for 30 years. I have seen a drop in the number of applications; I have not seen a drop-off in the quality," he said.
At least two local school employees were not afraid to go public when applying for superintendent jobs out of state. Renee Foose, Baltimore County's deputy superintendent, was a finalist in Orange County, Fla., but did not get the job. Tisha Edwards, the chief of staff in the city, dropped out of the running in Louisiana after taking part in the interview process, which was taped and put on the school system's website. Foose and Edwards did not comment on their applications or the process.
Searches are taking place in the following jurisdictions:
•Baltimore County. The contract of Joe A. Hairston, who has been superintendent for 12 years, expires after this school year.
•Howard County. Sydney Cousin announced last year that he would retire in July. He has been superintendent since 2004.
•The state. Nancy S. Grasmick retired last June after 20 years in the job.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun