(Editor's note: Inaccuracies in this story were corrected Feb. 18, 2013.)
With seven semifinalists to consider, the Beaufort County Board of Education gathered for a closed session Feb. 6 to winnow its list of potential superintendents, using a method familiar to college basketball fan.
Board members filled out a sheet pitting one candidate against another, NCAA Tournament-style. They say the exercise, led by consultants, took place without voting or discussion. They returned the score sheets to the consultants, who tallied the results. Then the school board announced three finalists.
"The process presented a very clear picture of who we all thought were the best candidates, without us having to compare notes or have a debate or conversation," school board Chairman Bill Evans said. "(That way) members' judgment were not swayed by anyone else, but the information presented and what we heard in interviews. ... What was reflected was each member's true belief without it being impacted by others."
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However, some have questioned both the process the board used and the results it produced. And, an expert in the state's Freedom of information Act says narrowing the list of seven semi-finalists down to three should have been done in public.
Since there was no discussion, it's unclear what consideration board members gave to information that had surfaced about some candidates. For instance, a YouTube video shows one finalist in a heated exchange with speaker at a public forum. And a media report suggests another finalist was considered brusque by some of her co-workers and might have been demoted.
"We don't know how far in depth the search firm went into the candidates' backgrounds or the process used to get to these three," said Sun City Hilton Head resident Bert Walker, who ran unsuccessfully for school board this past November. "There hasn't been transparency, and I think we can do a whole lot better, especially if we're paying this person more than $215,000.
Evans disagreed: "The process has given us very strong candidates ... who have been in communities somewhat like ours and have been able to generate improvement."
The finalists, announced Feb. 7, are Gloria J. Davis, superintendent of Decatur, Ill., Public Schools; Kathryn LeRoy, director of high school programs for Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla.; and Jeffrey Moss, superintendent of Lee County Schools in Sanford, N.C.
Moss and LeRoy have appeared at forums in Beaufort and fielded questions from the public. Davis will appear at a forum Tuesday in Bluffton.
The board set aside $60,000 for the superintendent search. Assisting the search is Iowa-based consultants Ray and Associates, which will be paid $22,000, plus expenses up to $5,000.
Evans said he is confident the firm has adequately screened applicants and given the board the information needed to make a decision.
However, board member JoAnn Orischak said she was surprised to learn of a YouTube video of Moss, in which he appears to be in a heated argument at a political forum in Sanford, N.C. One of the men with whom Moss argued has said Moss cursed at him. Moss has repeatedly denied it and the audio on the YouTube clip isn't clear.
Evans, vice chairwoman Mary Cordray and other board members say Ray and Associates did inform the board about the video. It is not mentioned in a biographical packet compiled by the firm and provided to The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette as part of a public-records request.
Evans and other board members said they looked into media reports and blog posts about the candidates on their own, before they were named finalists. They say claims that LeRoy was demoted and Moss lost his temper are overblown and mischaracterized by commenters who never bothered to check the veracity of what they read.
'THESE THREE FINALISTS ARE GOOD'
Ray and Associates' national executive director also says his firm's screening was thorough.
"None of them have done anything to indicate incompetence or corruption," William Newman said. "All of (the so-called red flags were) disclosed to both school boards ... the blogs and YouTube video some residents bring up about the finalists didn't have any credibility.
"These three finalists are good."
It's not the first time Newman has defended his company's services.
Recently, Ray and Associates' assistance in another superintendent search -- for the Madison, Wis., school district -- was called into question after one of the candidates it vetted withdrew.
The candidate dropped out after Madison residents flagged a 2007 state audit that found mismanagement at the New York school district he headed. Residents also questioned the candidate's hiring of a former business partner who was a convicted sex offender, according to news reports.
Newman said the firm disclosed concerns about the Madison candidate's background to the school board, which made him a finalist, anyway.
FOIA COMPLIANCE QUESTIONED
If the Beaufort County school board was adequately informed of candidates' backgrounds, it's not clear that the board has adequately informed the public.
The state's Freedom of Information Act obligates public bodies to release names and other information collected about no fewer than three finalists for job vacancies. The open-meeting portion of that law also stipulates that the only vote that can take place during a closed session is to return to public session.
All other votes must take place in public, the law says. And that includes decisions that determine finalists for job openings, according to Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association.
The board would have been well within bounds to discuss applicants in a closed sessions, but whatever process members used to narrow the list should have been done in public. The law also prohibits informal polling in executive session, Bender said.
Evans and board member Earl Campbell say the board didn't break the law because it never voted on finalists. What's more, the board has always ranked candidates in private, without discussing the ratings, according to Campbell, a former board chairman.
"I don't understand why folks are questioning the process," Campbell said. "That's the process that's been used to select the past five superintendents."
Evans said finalists were selected out of public view in part to protect Ray and Associate's "proprietary" selection process.
He said the board also needed to maintain a viable pool of applicants by agreeing to confidentiality, fearing that strong candidates would have been driven away if their names were released without first confirming they were interested in the job.
The board hopes to have a new superintendent under contract by the first week in March, Evans has said, although the selected candidate would probably not start until July 1.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom