The search for a new superintendent for the Neosho R-5 School District began under a cloud and has finished in the same way.
No one picked up on it when it was noted in the Nov. 7 Turner Report that the R-5 Board of Education began its selection process by illegally meeting in closed session to decide who would serve on the blue-ribbon screening committee chosen to review the superintendent candidates.
This week the board rejected the top two candidates submitted by the committee and decided to promote Assistant Superintendent Richard Page, a former Sarcoxie superintendent and Webb City assistant superintendent.
Neosho Daily News Editor Buzz Ball broke the story of the board's action in the Friday Daily in a strong story that didn't sugarcoat the board's cavalier rejection of its own committee's recommendations.
One of the committee's two recommendations reportedly had skeletons in his closet that disqualified him, but that information was not presented to the screening committee. Ball's article indicates that Board President Steve Marble may have already known about the candidate's problems and withheld that information from the board.
"If we had that information, our voting would have been entirely different," search committee member Danette Bowles told the Daily. "I think once he got disqualified, there should have been a delay in the decision making. If they truly wanted the committee's input, they should have contacted us to talk about the other candidates. I think we really needed to start over again."
The article also indicates that the board had already paved the way for Dr. Page's coronation by telling the committee it only wanted a superintendent who had worked in a district the size of Neosho...a qualification that only one candidate, Page, met.
Whether Dr. Page is the best candidate for the job remains to be seen, but he will be under the gun from the start because of the ham-handed in which way current superintendent Mark Mitchell and the board handled the selection process.
The process began with an ad being placed in various sources, including with the Jobs for Missouri Educators site. It read:
"Neosho R-5 School District Board of Education is announcing the opening of Superintendent of Schools. The position begins July 1, 2005. Applications will be accepted until the closing date of December 17, 2004. The R-5 District enjoys a long heritage as an educational leader and is accredited by the State Department of Education and the High School is accredited by North Central Association of Schools and Colleges. With a current enrollment of 4,266, Neosho Schools is a progressive district with numerous achievements including MSIP waivers and Distinction of Performance Awards. Certificated staff totals 291 and non-certificated staff totals 241. The R-5 District covers 223 square miles with a budget of 25.5 million dollars. Applicants must possess a commitment to superior lev (that's where the sentence ends and I don't have any idea what a superior lev is. It must be one of those educational terms.)"Candidates must submit a formal letter of application, current resume, updated credentials and a completed application. All correspondence should be directed to: Dr. Mark W. Mitchell, Superintendent of Schools, Neosho R-5 School District, 5 Neosho Blvd., Neosho, MO 64850 (417) 451-8600, Fax: (417) 451-8604 Email: email@example.com."
The entire first part of the ad read more like a self-tribute to the current superintendent (since he most likely was the one who worded the ad) than an attempt to find a successor. And, of course, Mitchell was the first person who saw who the applicants were.
The next problem came with the selection of the search committee, a committee which ostensibly was designed to open the process to the community. The board immediately closed the process to the community by selecting the committee membership behind closed doors.
The Missouri Open Meetings Law shows no exception by which the board could discuss this topic in a closed session. School boards and city councils across the state use an umbrella exemption of "personnel" for these sessions, but the law clearly states that only applies to the hiring, firing, promoting, or disciplining of identifiable individuals.
This meeting topic had nothing whatsoever to do with any of those.
This was a textbook example of how not to choose a superintendent.
Buzz Ball is not the only person who has shed light on this flawed selection process. A poster on Neosho Forums noted that an Oct. 27 Joplin Globe article by Dena Sloan clearly indicated that Marble already favored Page for the position. The article read, "Marble said board members will have to decide on an approach to finding a replacement, but Marble said he would like to consider internal candidates, and called the two assistant superintendents, Richard Page and Gretchen Guitard, 'star performers.' "
In the article, Marble was quoted as saying, "I certainly wouldn't speak for the board, but there's no doubt in my mind that Dr. Page is my first look." Marble added that Page had been groomed for the position.
In that case, why go through the charade of opening the process to the public, then rejecting the committee's recommendations.
Marble's early endorsement of Page, then his apparent withholding of vital information from the search committee, definitely makes it appear that he was pulling strings to make sure his choice was the only one who could possibly end up with the job.
Monday is the deadline for the final bids for the Pulitzer Company, owner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, according to The Wall Street Journal and if the company that appears to be the frontrunner has the winning bid, it could have a big impact on the media power structure in Missouri.
The Journal article, as well as an article in Friday's St. Louis Business Journal, indicates that Gannett is the front-runner, along with Lee Enterprises. One thing not mentioned in the article is that if Gannett takes over the Post-Dispatch, it will own two of the three most powerful newspapers in the state, since it already publishes the Springfield News-Leader. The other member of the top three, the Kansas City Star, is owned by Knight-Ridder. Gannett already owns KSDK-TV in St. Louis, so there may be a roadblock from federal regulators, but the strict attitude that used to exist toward that type of relationship has been greatly relaxed over the past few years.