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Charlotte Observer: CMS Notice Of Airport Interviews Falls Short

In trying to shield superintendent candidates from public view, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board apparently failed to meet the requirements of N.C. law for meetings at the airport Tuesday and Wednesday. On Monday, board Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart wouldn't even say how many candidates are being interviewed. She said it is within the range of eight to 12 announced earlier. "We are trying to maintain a level of confidentiality around the candidate names," she said when asked why she wouldn't be specific. "That's very important to the candidates." She said the board plans to bring "up to three" finalists to meet the public in late April. Going offsite for interviews is neither illegal nor uncommon. School boards routinely meet applicants at hotels, lawyers' offices and other sites where they won't be seen by employees or media. "It's not at all unusual because of the confidentiality, especially with sitting superintendents," said Allison Schafer of the N.C. School Boards Association, which conducts searches for some districts. But Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools did not meet the legal requirement for 48 hours' public notice of a special meeting. State law allows school boards to hold closed sessions for personnel matters, but to do so, the board must convene a public meeting and vote to go behind closed doors. When a board convenes "at any time or place" outside its regular meeting schedule, it is required to post written notice on "the principal bulletin board of the public body" and to "mail, e-mail or deliver" notice to all news media that have filed requests for notice. The Observer and other local media have requested all official notices from CMS. CMS normally emails announcements of special meetings to its media list. For instance, a special session held Friday, including a public portion and a closed session, was announced by email on Wednesday. On Friday, the board met for almost five hours in public to talk about communication among board members and with staff. The board then went into closed session at 3 p.m. Although the meeting had been announced as a superintendent search meeting, Ellis-Stewart wouldn't even confirm the board planned to talk about with its consultants at PROACT Search, saying only "It's a closed meeting." No information was released Friday, but an Observer reporter found listings on the board's online meeting schedule for "Special meeting, Charlotte Douglas International Airport" for 9 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. Amanda Martin, attorney for the N.C. Press Association, said the online calendar does not meet the requirements of the law, even if a reporter found and reported on the schedule. On Monday, after the Observer emailed the board and CMS attorney George Battle III questioning whether CMS had complied with the open meetings law, CMS added "superintendent search" to the online calendar listings. At that point, both meetings were less than 48 hours away. LaTarzja Henry, head of communications for CMS, said "it was the intention to have details" when the listings were posted last week. Both Henry and Ellis-Stewart said they believe the calendar meets the law's requirements. Ellis-Stewart referred further questions to Battle, who could not be reached for comment as of 2:15 p.m. Monday "Why in the world would they say that?" Martin asked, when told of CMS' insistence that the district didn't need to notify news media directly. While it's routine for school boards to protect applicants' identities, especially in the early stages of a search, the CMS board has been guarded even about the process. At last week's regular meeting, Ellis-Stewart said more details about next steps would be released at the end of the week. On Monday, PROACT Chief Executive Officer Gary Solomon and the only two board members who could initially be reached, Tom Tate and Vice Chairman Mary McCray, said all information about the search must come from Ellis-Stewart, who took over the lead search position when she was elected to chair the board in December. Ellis-Stewart said the CMS communications office is working on a release. "I think that we have some good candidates in the mix," she said.