Star sues TUSD over district’s refusal to name superintendent finalists

2013-06-18T11:32:00Z 2013-06-18T11:41:56Z Star sues TUSD over district’s refusal to name superintendent finalistsPatrick McNamara Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The Arizona Daily Star has sued TUSD to compel the district to release the names of finalists in its search for a new superintendent.

“The selection process here has an acute public interest,” said Dan Barr, attorney with Perkins Coie LLP, which filed the complaint in Pima County Superior Court today on behalf of the Star.

In addition to the general interest, Barr said the public has a right to know who the school district interviewed for the job.

TUSD announced on June 10 that H.T. Sanchez, interim superintendent of Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas, was the sole remaining candidate for the superintendent position of Tucson’s 50,000-student district. The board is expected to name Sanchez superintendent at tonight’s meeting, making him the sixth person to hold the post in the past decade.

TUSD hired the firm PROACT to manage the job search. The company initially corresponded with more than 60 applicants.

The list ultimately was reduced to four candidates, who the TUSD Governing Board interviewed individually in closed-door sessions on June 8.

Following the interviews, the governing board announced that Sanchez was the sole candidate under consideration for the job.

The Arizona Daily Star requested the names, resumes and other application materials the four candidates provided to the district. TUSD, however, refused to provide the requested information.

“All discussions and related documents held in executive session are protected from disclosure — (no documents available),” TUSD custodian of public records Imelda Cardenas wrote in response to the Star’s request.

Subseqently, lawyer Barr also asked the district to release the records to the Star.

In response to Barr’s June 12 letter, the district’s legal counsel, Nancy Woll, said the name of the only “seriously considered candidate,” Sanchez, was released.

“All applicants for this position were granted that their application would remain confidential through the screening process and that their names and resumes would be disclosed ONLY if they were seriously considered candidates and if they agreed to be named as finalists,” Woll wrote on June 14.

Candidates the board interviewed in executive session were “seriously considered” and their names and application materials should be made public, Barr said.

He also said state law makes no distinction for the term “finalist.”

“They’re playing a cynical shell game,” Barr said.

Barr argued that the documents, specifically the resumes and application materials, existed before the executive session and wouldn’t reveal the substance of the private discussions. State law forbids the disclosure of specific details of executive session discussions.

He argued that TUSD, or any government, can’t claim documents that already existed become confidential once they are brought into an executive session.

“Imagine they brought a dictionary into an executive session, would the contents of the dictionary be confidential?” Barr said.

“The Arizona Supreme Court ruled on this very issue 22 years ago and said the public has the right to know the names of candidates seriously considered for such an important taxpayer-funded position,” Bobbie Jo Buel, the Star’s editor, said Tuesday.

TUSD was notified Monday about the Star’s intent to sue. The district was to be served later this morning.

In the lawsuit, Barr cites the 1991 Arizona Supreme Court case, Arizona Board of Regents v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., wherein the newspaper wanted to know the names of the candidates interviewed for president of Arizona State University.

In that case, the Board of Regents narrowed a list of 236 applicants to three candidates. The regents then provided the name of only one, saying the other two had dropped out.

The court ruled the names of candidates a public body seriously considers for a job should be made public.

“The public’s legitimate interest in knowing which candidates are being considered for the job therefore outweighs the ‘countervailing interests of confidentiality, privacy (and) the best interests of the state,’ ” the court ruled.

TUSD has violated Arizona’s public records law by failing to provide access to the requested public documents, Barr argues in the complaint.

The suit asks the court to compel TUSD to release the records and to pay the Star attorney’s fees associated with filing the lawsuit.

Contact reporter Patrick McNamara at 573-4241 or pmcnamara@azstarnet.com.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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