A bill to widen the use of private meetings for governing bodies is pitting the leaders of Nebraska’s media outlets against the state’s public school boards.
A legislative committee heard testimony this week on a measure (LB-282) by Senator Roy Baker of Lincoln that would allow school boards to hold private sessions when narrowing down job applicants.
Current law only allows for closed sessions if they are necessary to prevent “needless injury” to reputation. Jacqueline Harms, the news director of KNOP-TV in North Platte, spoke out against the bill.
“People pay a lot of money to keep their schools open,” Harms says. “They deserve to know who the candidates are for that highest-paid government position. We have a right and taxpayers have a right to vet who would be right for them and to think about it. Transparency has never, ever backfired.”
North Platte’s School Board just hired a new superintendent, out of a pool of 15 applicants, but discussion in open session involved only four named finalists.
“We should have been able to hear the board discuss the qualifications of all 15,” Harms says. “According to open meetings laws, that’s the process. With news delivery on all types of media platforms, we should be able to tell our viewers about the school board’s discussions and the candidates. It’s the public’s right. They get to decide the quality of that. It’s their school.”
School officials say good candidates deserve confidentiality during the selection process and school boards need privacy to engage in honest discussions.
Patrick Etheridge, publisher of the Beatrice Daily Sun, testified that the Beatrice School Board twice violated open meetings law in superintendent searches, according to opinions from an Assistant Nebraska Attorney General. In one instance, a pool of a dozen applicants was narrowed to four persons, during a closed session.
Etheridge says, “It’s my belief, and the belief of the Attorney General’s Office, that the legislature intended public bodies to appoint officials like superintendents at open meetings so the appointed officials were scrutinized in the same fashion as the elected members.”
Etheridge maintains there’s no evidence Senator Baker’s bill would help attract better candidates or benefit taxpayers.
“I believe LB-282 wrongly steers the state in a different direction, where citizens and taxpayers are kept in the dark about the hiring process and the credentials of its potential leaders,” Etheridge says. “Citizens and taxpayers of Nebraska receive a far greater benefit by knowing who applies for positions, what their qualifications are and what they bring to the job.”
Members of the media say in many areas the school superintendent is the highest paid position and taxpayers deserve to know who is being considered for the role.
Senator Baker says he is open to reaching some middle ground on his bill.
“I do find the Public Records Act in the Open Meetings Law to be in conflict right now and that clarification is needed,” Baker says. “It’s almost impossible to comply with the restrictions of an open records law by doing everything in an open meeting.”
As yet, the committee has taken no action on the bill.
By Doug Kennedy, KWBE, Beatrice