Sugar-Salem self-corrects superintendent hire after complaint

SUGAR CITY — Sugar-Salem School District trustees self-corrected their secretive process for hiring a superintendent after Idaho Education News filed a formal complaint with the Madison County Prosecutor’s Office.

The Feb. 2 complaint alleged the board violated Idaho’s open meeting law by not publicly naming three finalists vying to replace longtime superintendent Alan Dunn.

Draft board minutes show trustees instead referred to finalists by letters of the alphabet during a Jan. 25 public meeting. Trustees held a closed “executive session” to consider “hiring an employee,” the minutes show. Trustees then returned to an open meeting and “deliberated about which candidate they should offer the position to.”

Trustees voted 5-0 to offer the job to “candidate O.” Nowhere in the minutes is “candidate O” identified. The Rexburg Standard Journal identified “candidate O” as Rockland district superintendent Chester Bradshaw the day after the vote.

Sugar-Salem School Board Chair Kristin Galbraith defended the hiring process to Idaho Ed News by saying trustees needed to keep discussions about candidates’ qualifications “confidential.” Galbraith also said the board consulted with the Idaho School Boards Association during the hiring process. Executive director Karen Echeverria said the ISBA never told trustees to conceal the candidates’ names.

Idaho Ed News’ formal complaint alleged that Sugar-Salem’s hiring process violated open meeting law, which requires the formation of public policy to be conducted in open meetings.

Trustees originally vowed to fight the complaint, in a formal letter from attorney Brian K. Julian to the prosecutor. Also, trustee Greg Stoddard suggested in a Feb. 7 meeting the district file a restraining order against Idaho Ed News reporters.

But draft minutes from a March 7 open meeting reveal the board’s decision to “redo” the hiring by discussing candidates’ qualifications and using their actual names. Trustees voted unanimously to offer the position to Bradshaw. The March 7 minutes identify the other two finalists: Rod Broadnax, superintendent of the McIntosh School District, near Bismarck, N.D.; and Parma High School principal David Carson.

Galbraith defended her board’s original actions, despite the decision to correct them.

“We knew the media was going to slaughter us,” Galbraith said Tuesday. “We did it right. We know we did it right. We just knew what (Idaho Education News) would do, so we said let’s just finish it off, and we did.”

Sugar-Salem originally fought the complaint

In a Feb. 7 letter, Madison County civil deputy Troy D. Evans notified Sugar-Salem trustees of the Feb. 2 complaint from Idaho Ed News managing editor Jennifer Swindell. Evans’ letter pointed out that trustees could self-correct their action or deny wrongdoing.

Trustees acknowledged the complaint during their Feb. 7 meeting, yet voted unanimously to leave Bradshaw’s hiring “as is.” Draft minutes show that Galbraith had consulted with the district’s attorney Bret Walther, who concluded trustees “did nothing wrong.”

“(Walther) said that we needed to discuss the candidates by letter in open meeting to protect the privacy of the candidates,” according to the draft minutes.

At this same meeting, Stoddard floated filing a restraining order against Idaho Ed News reporters “for harassment,” if “it turns out that we have done nothing wrong.”

“(Stoddard) does not want them to be able to call us and ask us any questions,” the draft minutes read.

Julian, an attorney representing Sugar-Salem, wrote a Feb. 15 letter to Evans, acknowledging the need for boards to conduct business in public meetings. However, the letter said Idaho law distinguishes between “deliberations,” which may occur in closed executive sessions, and “actions” or “decisions,” which must occur in an open meeting.

“Sugar-Salem prefers to protect the confidentiality of applicant qualifications,” Julian wrote, “(and) believes it is restrained from discussing their respective qualities in open session.”

Julian referenced the Rexburg Standard Journal news story outlining Bradshaw’s hiring. According to the article, Julian wrote, “Chester Bradshaw was identified as the selected candidate (candidate O) at the time of the meeting.”

Idaho Ed News attorney Timothy Fleming responded with a Feb. 21 letter to Evans. Fleming argued that the Jan. 25 draft board minutes conflicted with Julian’s claim that Bradshaw was identified at the meeting. Fleming called for further investigation, “by perhaps obtaining a copy of the recording of the meeting.”

Fleming also questioned the need for the use of pseudonymous names, if Bradshaw had truly been named during the meeting.

“(Idaho Education News) can discern no reasonable explanation why the board of trustees would continue the charade of identifying the candidates by letters of the alphabet,” Fleming said.

The ISBA’s reaction

Echeverria said the ISBA did not contract with Sugar-Salem to help in the superintendent’s search. Echeverria said “someone” from the district reached out to ISBA during the process, but no one from the ISBA recommended concealing the candidates’ names.

Echeverria said the ISBA directs districts to use pseudonyms for larger pools of up to 30 candidates, for easier reference. However, she said Idaho law requires districts to identify the five final candidates for a superintendent’s position.

“We wouldn’t have told them to keep the final candidate a secret,” Echeverria said.

A similar incident occurred in the Nampa School District in 2017. In open session, the board discussed the merits of superintendent’s finalists, referring to them as “Candidate A” and “Candidate B.”

Idaho Education News filed a formal complaint with the Canyon County prosecutor’s office. The Nampa School Board eventually self-corrected its actions in hiring Paula Kellerer.

Idaho Education News Managing Editor Jennifer Swindell and data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report. 

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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