Nearly nine months after the Chippewa Herald sought the names of finalists for superintendent of the Chippewa Falls School District, the state's attorney general has issued an opinion in the newspaper's favor.
Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager decided this week that the public was entitled to the names of all of the final candidates.
"I agree with your view that the names and addresses of the eight candidates identified by the school district consultant should have been disclosed in response to your reporter's public records request," Lautenschlager wrote in response to the Herald's request for an opinion on the dispute.
The Herald made the request to the attorney general's office after the school board launched a second superintendent search without disclosing the names of the final candidates it brought into town for interviews.
"This is a clear and convincing victory for the public," said Mark Baker, publisher of the Herald. "We were confident that the attorney general would rule in favor of our position. It's unfortunate that it took a lawsuit and an appeal to the attorney general to get to this point."
In October 2003, the school board narrowed the field of superintendent candidates from a couple dozen to six, who the board invited for interviews. When the school board refused the newspaper's request to make the names public, the Herald turned to the courts to enforce its open records request.
But before a ruling could be made, one superintendent candidate withdrew, and the school board called off its search and started a new one.
As part of the school's second search, Fox River Consultants, the Appleton firm hired by the district to conduct the search, increased the number of final candidates to be interviewed to eight. The newspaper requested the names of the eight candidates, and the school board refused to supply the names. Instead, it provided the names of two men it considered finalists.
"Clearly, the consultant hired by the school district set up the search process to sidestep provisions of Wisconsin's Open Records Law," Baker said. "It argued the six candidates in the first search, and eight candidates in the second search, did not constitute 'finalists,' an argument which the attorney general decisively rejected."
Lautenschlager said she used principles attributed to her predecessor, now-Gov. Jim Doyle, in arriving at her decision.
"Section 19.31 mandates access to the greatest possible information, or, under these circumstances, the largest possible number of final candidate names and addresses," she wrote. "Because the number of applicants exceeded eight, the second sentence of section 19.36(7)(a) established five as the minimum number of final candidates for the Chippewa Falls School District superintendent position.
"The group of two 'finalists' announced by the school board is too small to serve as the group of at least five final candidates required," Lautenschlager wrote. "The next largest group of candidates is the group of eight identified by the school district consultant to be considered in the group interview process. The third sentence of section 19.36(7)(a) means that all eight of those candidates were 'final candidates.' "
School Board President Roberta Rasmus declined comment on the issue after receiving a copy of the opinion from the Herald. She said before commenting, she wanted to consult with the school district's attorney, Jim Ward, of the Eau Claire-based law firm Weld, Riley, Prenn & Ricci, S.C.
Robert Dreps, the Herald's Madison-based attorney who works with newspapers on open records issues, applauded the Herald for its perseverance on the issue.
"This will have a statewide impact and hopefully schools and communities will learn what it means to be seriously considered for superintendent's position," Dreps said.
Dreps said through working with Wisconsin newspapers and their legal hotline, he knows there is widespread non-compliance when it comes to following the state laws in regards to school district hiring processes.
"The Chippewa Herald stepped up, raised the issue, and pursued it. I hope this results in districts complying with the law," Dreps said. "I don't expect to see again a district blatantly ignoring the law like Chippewa Falls did twice."
"Wisconsin has a long and proud tradition of keeping the public in the loop when public boards are considering important decisions," Baker said.
"Taxpayers deserve to know who the finalists are when 23 superintendent applicants are whittled down to the final candidates. The superintendent of schools oversees a $40 million annual budget, and hundreds of employees. How can the public decide if the finalists are worthy of the position if it doesn't know their names, work history, or backgrounds?
"The Chippewa Herald has spent thousands of dollars in legal fees to hold the school board responsible," Baker said. "It is an important part of our First Amendment responsibilities. While costly, it is worth the expense, as this opinion will have positive ramifications in every community in the state."