Closed minds and open records

Except for another last-minute meltdown, the Orange County School Board expects to have chosen its replacement for Superintendent Donald Shaw by mid-May.;;After several months of work, the two candidates still standing at press time were Dennis Smith, superintendent of the Irvine, Calif., school district and Peter Horoschak, the superintendent in Albuquerque, N.M.;;Getting to this point hasn't been easy. Last month, the previous field of finalists dwindled to none after one candidate's out-of-wedlock child became public and the other prospect scampered back to his district with a fat raise. This sent the board and its consultant, Bill Attea, back to the drawing board. But Attea was able to find two more viable candiates. One never knows in Orange County, but Board Chairman Susan Arkin says she is confident the search will end on May 13.;;In the end, the public will have learned plenty about candidates favored by Attea through their resumes and answers at public interviews. Unfortunately, as a result of a screening process set up by Attea and the board, nothing will be known about applicants that he rejected or who decided against pursuing the job.;;As a consultant for the school district, he is required to follow Florida public records law. But as a headhunter who must deal with superintendents secretly shopping themselves around, Attea is often better served by keeping as much from the public as possible. ;;The law requires Attea to make available, upon request, records he has prepared in conducting his search. But a prospect for the Orange County post could wind up out of a job if his bosses learn he has acted on thoughts of leaving. Also, Attea's reputation could be tarnished, and in his business, the network is essential.;;Rather than compromise the nation's superintendents, Attea and the board determined that all communications during the first part of the screening process should remain entirely verbal. Thus, there would be no records subject to public scrutiny.;;"Our obligation is to get the best possible candidate," Attea says. "It's not fair to be drawn into this picture if they're not interested in the job." While insisting he has followed the law, Attea blamed it for causing 30 top prospects to steer clear of Orange County. "Those laws work against the school districts," he said.;;Attea was publicly scolded in articles in the Orlando Sentinel for using the verbal screening process. Yet the paper failed to point out that Attea served at the pleasure of Arkin and the board -- and that the board is responsible for policing his actions.;;;In fact, Attea was simply following orders. "That's what we asked him to do," Arkin said. Arkin also disputes any assertion that the law -- or the public trust it is supposed to protect -- were violated.;;Here's where semantics take over. During phone interviews with applicants, Attea stated clearly that their lives would become subject to public scrutiny once they submitted resumes or anything else in writing. Technically, this procedure satisfies requirements of the law, although "anything done to avoid the law is in itself a violation," according to attorney Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.;;Florida is home to the oldest state public records law in the country. In 1992, Floridians voted to make the right to public access part of the state Constitution. All of which prompts Petersen to discredit anyone suggesting the law runs contrary to the state's best interest.;;"I don't see people turning away from Florida in droves," Petersen said. "The fact is, in Florida, government works.";;While likely to agree with Petersen's last statement, government officials continue to take issue with public records laws, denying access, forcing legal challenges and concocting procedures designed to keep some of their business secret. Rather than a result of officials favoring secrecy, Petersen said she believes the problems stem from a lack of education, especially for boards of education. "They don't pay much attention to the public records law," she said.;; Though acknowledging she was hardly a public-records expert, Arkin wasn't buying the suggestion that the verbal screening process was a conscious attempt to satisfy the law, while keeping some of Attea's business secret. Instead, she emphasized it was designed to produce the best candidates.ossible superintendent.;;"Looking at it the other way is a way to look for a problem because you'd like to find one," she said.


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