Hiring a Superintendent Out in the Open

As this academic year winds down, many school boards are in the process of hiring a new superintendent. We remind boards that they must comply with the Open Meetings Act (OMA) when evaluating, interviewing, and selecting a new superintendent.

The OMA’s intent is to facilitate public access to official governmental decision-making and to promote transparency in government. To further that interest, the OMA requires that all school board meetings be open to the public, except for specifically identified closed session purposes.

A board, upon a two-thirds roll call vote, can convene in closed session to “review and consider the contents of an application for employment or appointment to a public office if the candidate requests that the application remain confidential.” Thus, the OMA only permits a board to enter closed session to discuss a superintendent candidate’s resume or application if the candidate requests confidentiality. Absent that request, a board must review that individual’s resume or application in open session. The board, however, may prompt such a request by asking candidates if they would like their application to remain confidential.

Even if candidates request that their application remain confidential, this closed session purpose is limited to reviewing and considering application materials. Boards cannot use this closed session to consider or conduct the interview, discuss a site visit, or deliberate items not within the four corners of the application materials. Any action that amounts to decision-making, such as completing an internal rubric as a group, is not permitted in closed session and must be done in open session. Likewise, decisions to eliminate certain applicants from consideration or to offer candidates interviews must be made in open session.   

Whether conducted by the board, a board committee, or an individual board member designated to act on the board’s behalf, all interviews of superintendent candidates must be conducted in open session. Michigan’s Attorney General has specifically opined that an interview for employment to public office must be conducted in open session and does not violate the applicant’s constitutional privacy rights, reasoning that “the interest of the public in knowing the qualifications and hiring procedures of its officials is paramount [i.e., superior] to the applicant’s right of privacy.”

Since interviews must be held in open session, members of the public have a right to be present and to address the board during the meeting’s public comment period. Notably, members of the public may pose questions but do not have a legal right to an answer from the board or the candidate.

Other than the limited closed session purpose described above, the superintendent selection process must be open and transparent, from posting through hiring. Conducting the superintendent selection process in public not only complies with the OMA but may also engage the community, prevent bias, and foster political support.