LORAIN — The company hired to find candidates for the Lorain Schools CEO search doubled down Thursday on its claims that it is not required to release the remaining 32 applications for the position.
Atlantic Research Partners President Jim Hager said the company’s lawyers had gone through Ohio Revised Code and could not find any statute that required the firm to reveal the candidates who applied for the position but weren’t selected as finalists.
“Atlantic’s legal counsel has gone through Ohio’s statutes governing a request of this nature and find no legislative acts that compel disclosure of confidential information independently gathered by a nongovernmental agency,” he said. “Further, the confidential information apparently being sought is data that was never disclosed or submitted to a government entity and remains subject to contractual confidentiality language.”
Hager said when Atlantic Research Partners was being interviewed by the Academic Distress Commission to become the search firm responsible for helping in the hiring process, the two entities discussed confidentiality.
“We had an agreement with the commission that the only individuals presented to them would be the (five) finalists,” he said. “Otherwise, there would be a lot of people that we interviewed that would not have even submitted their names for consideration because many of them have very good jobs and they don’t want to be exposed that they’re looking for another job. That’s the practice. I don’t think there’s a search firm that doesn’t have that statement in there in order to get the best candidates.”
However, this appears to conflict with the Ohio public records law, which states “a contract cannot nullify or restrict the public’s access to public records” and a “public entity cannot enter into enforceable promises of confidentiality regarding public records.”
The law cites 32 exemptions where confidentiality can be enforced, but most pertain to the private information of minors and medical practices.
Hager previously has said while the firm is working with a public entity, as the commission is an arm of the state Department of Education, it is still a private firm and therefore its records are not public.
According to an Ohio Supreme Court case, Consumer News Services v. Worthington Board of Education, “resumes and supporting documentation supplied by applicants for public employment are subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act.”
Consumer News Services v. Worthington Board of Education cited Plain Dealer Publishing Co. v. Cleveland and Gannett Satellite Info. Network v. Shirey as supporting cases.
School board president Tony Dimacchia has submitted three public records requests since David Hardy, who serves as the deputy superintendent for St. Louis Public Schools, was named the new Lorain district CEO last month, including all resumes and applications for the position and communications related to the search.
“I categorically disagree with Dr. Hager,” Dimacchia said. “I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know if he is, but I think the claims that these aren’t public records are based on inaccurate information. Public money was used for a public position.”
Dimacchia said while he agrees with the idea that the commission did the job they set out to do — to hire a CEO — he disagrees with the process.
“This isn’t about Hardy or his qualifications,” Dimacchia said, although he did note that in the two superintendent searches he has been a part of he vehemently opposed hiring a candidate with no experience running a district, like Hardy. “But it was public money that was being spent.”
Dimacchia said the state is paying for the search and Hardy’s $190,000 annual salary, but the district paid the $25,000 for Atlantic Research Partners’ services and the state should reimburse them.
Treasurer Josh Hill said while the district hasn’t been reimbursed yet, he expects it will come in the first quarterly reimbursement from the state.
Dimacchia also said Atlantic Research Partners seemingly used a “friends and family plan” when selecting finalists since four of the five, including Hardy, had connections to the firm.
Hager said that’s just the nature of the job.
“We are known for our turnaround work and we do a lot of work in school improvement, so as a company we have a good reputation in assisting in that work,” he said.
“And we did say that you do run in circles where you know other people, and one of the things the commission emphasized is that they wanted someone who had worked in turnaround schools and experience in urban education. That’s the group we run in, and so there were some people we knew.”
Dimacchia said he has received acknowledgements of his requests from the Academic Distress Commission and the Ohio Department of Education but not from Atlantic Research Partners, which he has referred to as “troublesome” and “extremely disappointing.”
He also said he hasn’t received any of the records he requested from his first two requests, despite noting in them that he wished to receive the information as it became available, rather than waiting for it all to come at once.
This includes a copy of the Atlantic Research Partners contract with the Academic Distress Commission, which was requested by the Chronicle-Telegram shortly after 10:30 a.m. Thursday and was received about three hours later.
His third request, which was sent primarily to Hardy, was answered Thursday night, including his application for the CEO position, which already had been released, and all of his emails regarding the search.
Other records, he said, didn’t exist such as a consulting agreement with Atlantic Research Partners, receipts of publicly-funded reimbursements for the CEO search (Hardy said Atlantic Research Partners reimbursed him for travel expenses) and his contract with St. Louis Public Schools.
In the response to Dimacchia, Hardy noted the two were able to find “clarity” and “common ground” — Lorain’s students.
“With that said, please know I will always be transparent with you and to keep on that path, we have a long way to go towards establishing a collaborative working partnership,” Hardy said in the email. “I do think it is possible, but please know my focus will always be on the best interest of our young people and hope that the work we do will focus on those efforts one day soon. I will always comply with the law and legal proceedings, however, we have extensive work ahead of us if we want to become collaborative.”
Hager said Atlantic Research Partners isn’t responding to the requests because the commission is ultimately in charge.
“Frankly, when stuff comes to us on wanting the information, we talked to the commission and said ‘You’re our boss and everything that goes through, you guys need to be the ones who make the comments on it,’” Hager said, noting since he isn’t an attorney he isn’t sure if Dimacchia’s claims are correct or incorrect.
“I can just tell you what our attorneys have said, which is there are no legislative acts in Ohio that we were able to uncover that compels the disclosure of confidential information,” he said.
Hager said based on his work on the search he thinks Lorain will be in good hands moving forward.
“In my opinion, Lorain has one of the most outstanding CEOs coming here,” he said. “I believe he will do an exceptionally good job for the Lorain community and I appreciate the people who are participating. It’s their school district. There are performance issues, but I think that can be addressed.”
Hager also said the focus now needs to shift from the adults involved in this situation to the children, calling the fight from Dimacchia and other members from the school board and community “extraneous.”
“Some people can say this talk isn’t bothering the students but I think when David Hardy comes in, he focus needs to be on what’s best for the students,” he said. “There are things David and his team will have to address, and I’m hoping the welfare can be focusing on the kids of Lorain. I hope he doesn’t have to spend a lot of time dealing with extraneous issues and can focus his attention to turning Lorain into an exemplary school district.”
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