Facing questions about its superintendent search process, the Madison School Board has yet to release the names of candidates it interviewed prior to naming two finalists last weekend.
Even after naming a top Chicago Public Schools administrator to the job Friday afternoon, the board would not disclose the names of all seven candidates it interviewed last week. The State Journal on Monday filed a request under the state's Open Records Law for those names after the district announced two superintendent finalists Sunday.
Wisconsin law requires boards to release the identities of at least five candidates to the public upon request when there are at least five applicants, according to a 2004 opinion by then-Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager.
The opinion doesn't specify when the names must be disclosed.
School district officials said Friday they were still reviewing the newspaper's request. On Tuesday district lawyer Dylan Pauly told the newspaper the district would respond to the request within 10 business days.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said the School Board "is clearly violating the spirit of the law" by not making the names public before the board made a decision. The law calls for records to be provided as soon as possible.
"For the district to pick a superintendent candidate without first meeting its statutory obligation to identify (at least) five candidates considered most qualified delegitimizes the selection that is made," Lueders said.
Bob Dreps, a lawyer who has represented the Wisconsin State Journal in open records cases, said the law was created so that the public could petition their elected representatives about the candidates.
"If they give out five names today, it's too late," Dreps said Friday. "The opportunity to weigh in on any of the other five final candidates they should have named is gone."
Louis Birchbauer, a search services consultant for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, which conducts superintendent searches for smaller districts in the state, said his organization releases the names of any candidates interviewed by a school board.
WASB lawyer Bob Butler agreed with Lautenschlager's interpretation of the law but said the five-name requirement has had "a chilling effect on the applicant pool."
Some superintendent candidates don't want their names publicized if there's no chance they will be hired because they don't want to create a perception in their home district that they'll leave, Butler said. So they may drop out of the process if they aren't selected or in the top two.
The Madison School Board named two finalists on Sunday after interviewing seven semifinalists for the position the previous week.
On Friday the board announced it would hire Jennifer Cheatham, chief of instruction for Chicago Public Schools, a day after she was introduced to the public at a community forum.
The second finalist, Springfield, Ill., superintendent Walter Milton Jr., withdrew earlier in the week amid questions about his background.
In 2004, Lautenschlager said the Chippewa Falls School Board should have released to the Chippewa Herald the names of the eight candidates interviewed by groups of board members, school staff and citizens who met in private. In that case the board also had only publicly named two finalists.
Lautenschlager said state law requires boards to release the greatest number of final candidates as possible, but who counts as a "final candidate" is ambiguous. Because the pool of two finalists did not meet the statutory requirement of five candidates, the pool of eight candidates should have been considered the final candidate pool, she wrote.