Some Richmond School Board members balked at a perceived lack of transparency in plans laid out Tuesday for how the committee tasked with steering the search for a new public schools chief will operate.
The first official meeting of that group began with an admonition for its more than two dozen members from Thomas F. Farrell II, Dominion’s CEO and chairman of the committee.
“Don’t talk to School Board members about who these candidates are,” Farrell said.
Because open discussion of candidates could deter qualified applicants and the group considering them is so large, committee members were told to sign a six-point confidentiality pledge that ended in a threat of removal from the committee or legal action should they divulge confidential personal information.
Farrell’s remark rankled board members who said elected officials should have access to information about the workings of the committee or, at the very least, freedom to consult with the people they appointed to do the heavy lifting of culling reams of candidates down to a list of finalists.
“It’s disconcerting,” 2nd District board member Scott Barlow said. “While we have to be cognizant of the desire for privacy for superintendent candidates and the need for transparency during this transition, withholding information from the School Board doesn’t help us strike the right balance.”
Jonathan Young, 4th District board member, took it a step further, adding that elected officials should have access to applications for all qualified candidates.
“Well before the committee has concluded its work and narrowed the list to a select few finalists, my colleagues and I should have a very clear understanding of all of the candidates and their credentials and why they are a nay or a yea,” he said. “Partly because we have been very clear in what we want for a superintendent and partly because we along the way between now and December have reviewed the credentials for all of the candidates irrespective of if they made the cut.”
Reached by email after the meeting, Farrell declined to comment.
Farrell has done this before, and the rules were the same. He presided over a panel tasked with finding a replacement for Deborah Jewell-Sherman, who left the division in 2008 for a position at Harvard University.
In the nine years since, two permanent superintendents have come and gone, both departures hastened after a panel of newly elected School Board members opted to negotiate an early exit.
Brad Draeger of the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates stressed that he always asks for a minimum five-year commitment from prospective candidates, even though state law limits the maximum initial contract for a superintendent to four years.
“There also needs to be a discussion ... of the commitment of the board,” said committee member Marcus J. Newsome, who retired as superintendent of Chesterfield County Public Schools in 2016 and now leads Petersburg City Public Schools.
The panel will cull a list of applicants to three — maybe four — top picks, and forward those finalists to the board for consideration.
“Dawn wants no more than three names,” said Farrell, referring to School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page.
Striking the right balance between confidentiality and transparency is critical to maintaining public faith in the process, said committee member Benjamin Campbell, who allowed that the participation of prominent private sector titans such as Farrell, philanthropist Bill Goodwin and businessman Jim Ukrop has raised eyebrows.
“You don’t want the process to be taken over,” Campbell said, “but in order for this division to get the resources that we need, we are going to have to have the significant financial and political support of the business community.”
Farrell said he was pleased to be asked to serve again, but acknowledged he has no personal connection to the division.
“I did not go to Richmond Public Schools,” he said. “I grew up moving around, in the U.S. Army.”
Still, he said, his company employs nearly 6,000 people, many with families who reside in Richmond.
Meetings of the committee are open to the public, and its members must abide by the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. That means no three members may gather to discuss the group’s work without providing public notice of the meeting, and many of the committee’s records are subject to disclosure. Talk of individual candidates will occur during executive sessions.
Draeger said he has already fielded questions from interested candidates with concerns about the search process being too open. Top choices tend to have a lot to lose if anyone learns they have been looking around.
He cited the outgoing superintendent’s public flirtation with the top schools job in Boston 14 months into his term as a cautionary tale.
“Dana Bedden was here a very short time,” Draeger said. “It’s always hard for a candidate ... to step back into that school system (if not selected) and say I really want to be here.”
Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates has nearly $50,000 to work with to complete the job, between fees and expenses.
It hopes to recommend candidates to the School Board in October, according to a timetable distributed Tuesday. Consultants are planning a cluster of focus group meetings with parents, administrators and more than a dozen others on Aug. 14 and 15.
By state code, Richmond must select a new superintendent within 180 days of Bedden’s departure, which sets a final deadline toward the end of December.