Public vetting of candidates? In many cases, don't count on it
Ever wonder how our local school boards operate when filling a vacancy by appointment, something often necessitated by a midterm resignation.
Wouldn't you think, given the appointee will become a public official and enjoy the advantage of incumbency if he/she runs for election, that process would be a public one? One in which the names of the candidates are released to the public, perhaps with a little biographical data? Wouldn't you think there might be a public vetting of the candidates? I mean, isn't that what's supposed to happen when an election occurs?
Oh, you're so naive.
It's usually a close-to-the-vest process in which we often don't get the names of the candidates until the decision is pretty much cast in stone and school board approval is a formality. A quick survey of editors and education reporters confirmed that theory.
The occasion for my theorizing was word that 19 residents in Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 were sufficiently interested in public service that they applied to fill a school board vacancy.
That's an almost-unheard of number for a small elementary district. But District 41 has had its share of challenges.
There's been debate about the district's mobile classrooms, its now-discarded combined grade approach, faculty morale, student fees, a behind-the-scenes vetting with teachers of extending the school day, and a decision to destroy closed-session recordings. Two newer board members opposed the latter -- the same two who have called for more transparency.
Anyway, the deadline to apply for the school board vacancy was Friday, May 19. Katlyn Smith, our reporter who covers the district, asked for the candidates' names. She was told to submit a Freedom of Information Act request; she also was told the aspiring board members' applications were only for the school board to review in closed session. That meeting occurred Monday, May 23. So, the next day, Smith asked again for the list, but, no, the school board's attorney had recommended she submit the FOIA request.
The district has five working days to respond, and the board's deadline to fill the vacancy is June 17. Will the decision pretty much have been made by time we get the list of names? Sort of seems like it.
I should hasten to add there is nothing improper or illegal about this. The three exemptions public bodies have for discussing the public's business in private are personnel, litigation and land acquisition. You probably could debate all day whether those exemptions are so broad as to allow virtually any excuse for going into executive session. I single out District 41 only because theirs is the most current example. And it's not just school boards that go this route; a public vetting of candidates seeking to fill vacancies is the exception rather than the rule for most forms of government, be it municipal, park or library board.
It's not hard to see why there's a level of secrecy to filling vacancies on government bodies. Vetting the candidates publicly amounts to doing a job interview in public. Local boards, especially smaller, more obscure ones, struggle to find qualified people to serve. When local elections roll around next April, half the races will be uncontested if things run true to form. So is it in anyone's interest to scare off good candidates with a public pre-perfomance evaluation?
On the other hand, isn't a public job interview precisely what happens when a candidate chooses to run for office? Shouldn't he or she be held accountable, appointed or elected?
And when we're not holding elected officials' feet to the fire, less-than-transparent things can occur -- on important issues that really ought to be run by the public. Such as, I don't know, a rare, maybe unprecedented, 10-year teachers contract in Palatine that was approved by teachers and the school board six weeks before the details were made public.
For more on that, see the editorial at the top of this page.