Why we protested the Nampa superintendent hire

On Wednesday night, it only took the Nampa School Board a couple of minutes to hire, officially, Paula Kellerer as the district’s new superintendent.

And that includes the time board chairman Mike Fuller used to criticize Idaho Education News — and the legal complaint we filed over the way the board handled this hire during a May 9 meeting.

So why did we pursue this issue?

The district’s decision didn’t change (although our objection had nothing to do with the decision, and everything to do with the process).

We didn’t make friends (not that we went into journalism to win popularity contests anyway).

We pursued this issue because hiring a superintendent might be the single most important decision a school board can make. A superintendent is a school district’s CEO — and in many Idaho communities, the superintendent oversees the largest employer in town. Kids are our future. Schools are pretty important to our present, as well.

The hiring process matters. It must be as open and transparent as possible. The patrons, the staff and the students deserve nothing less from their elected trustees.

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On May 9, Nampa trustees offered the superintendent’s job to “Candidate A,” identified a day later as Kellerer.

We believe that discussing — but not publicly naming — a new hire violated the open meeting law. The Nampa district sees it differently; trustees say they were trying to protect Kellerer’s privacy during contract negotiations, and they acted on the advice of the Idaho School Boards Association.

But by exploring what appears to be a cloudy area of Idaho sunshine law, we believe we have called attention to an important issue.

When a government body discusses a new hire, or a prospective hire, the public has a fundamental right to know who’s being talked about. “Candidate A” was a pseudonym that meant nothing to anybody who didn’t happen to be a school trustee. At the very least — and, we think, beyond any doubt — this kind of secrecy violates the spirit of Idaho’s open meeting law.

This law is built upon the presumption of openness. Secrecy undermines openness.

The thing is, the Nampa trustees took extra, commendable steps to incorporate the public in the hiring process. They publicly named their five finalists. Community members, including staff and students, had a role in interviewing the applicants. After winnowing the field to two candidates, the district held a public meet-and-greet.

But at the most critical stage in decision-making, the process went dark.

In the end, the Canyon County prosecutor’s office declined to pursue a case. The Nampa School Board agreed to void its May 9 action and start over — which is what happened Wednesday night.

I’m not sure any of us have a clear answer on what the law allows. That’s unfortunate, but something a legal opinion would help solve.

Throughout the back and forth between our attorney and the school district’s attorney, deputy prosecutor Sam Laugheed has found himself in the role of umpire. Like any good umpire, he has kept a clear eye and a level head.

In his May 26 letter to the attorneys, he explained our stake in this issue every bit as capably as we could.

“We would be remiss to not acknowledge the proactive role played by (Idaho Education News) in this matter, as a thoughtful and vigilant representative of the Fourth Estate,” Laugheed wrote.

We didn’t initiate this action to second-guess Nampa’s hiring decision. And we certainly didn’t do it to make friends.

We did this because we believe in the importance of an open governing process.

That’s why Nampa matters to us.

And, we hope, to you as well.

 

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