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The Hamilton County Board of Education meets for a special session on Thursday, April 27, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The board approved a balanced budget to be sent to the county commission, and they approved a charter request for Chattanooga Preparatory School.
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School board approves balanced budget, list of $24 million in "critical needs."

The Hamilton County Board of Education narrowed down its list of superintendent finalists Tuesday by private emails not yet released.

Each school board member emailed a list of the 10 candidates they want to interview for the post from a pool of 14, and school board Chairman Steve Highlander, the board's secretary and a representative from the search firm tabulated the results in private Tuesday.

Highlander said Tuesday afternoon that the decision about who the board will interview was based on the emails sent by board members. He did not elaborate on how the final list was tabulated. Once the candidates have been contacted, he said the district would release the names of who will be interviewed.

State law requires any deliberation by the board to occur in public, and school board members are not allowed to cast secret votes or use emails as a way to avoid open meetings laws.

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"All votes of any such governmental body shall be by public vote or public ballot or public roll call. No secret votes, or secret ballots, or secret roll calls shall be allowed," according to state law.

Deborah Fisher, executive director for the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, questioned why school board members want to hide their finalist preferences.

"Allowing back-room dealing as a way to choose the next director of schools is not transparent government," she said. " The candidates' names are already public. And citizens have a right to know the choices of their school board members on the matter."

But Scott Bennett, the school board's attorney, argued the board did not violate the state's open meetings law.

"This is not a deliberation because board members are not meeting together to discuss their opinions and working toward a consensus," Bennett said. "That, in my opinion, is what regards an open meeting."

All that happened Tuesday, Bennett argued, is that board members shared their preferences for who they want to interview with the chairman via email. Highlander, along with Ken Carrick, president of the search firm Coleman Lew and Associates, then determined the number of candidates to interview and who to interview based on those preferences.

"The board certainly could have done this whole thing in an open meeting, and the only reason they did it by email is for expediency," Bennett said.

The board's emails and the final list of candidates will be made public, Bennett said, as they are public records.

But the school board did not respond to the Times Free Press' request for the emails and results Tuesday.

Highlander said the list of finalists will likely be released in coming days, once the search firm contacts all of the candidates.

School board member Rhonda Thurman said she's unhappy with the superintendent selection process.

"I have a problem with this stuff not being done out in the open if that's the way we are supposed to do business," she said.

Thurman said the board was not consulted on this approach, and she has no idea who made up the rules or how Highlander made the decision about the finalists.

"When you're running for office, you run on transparency ... and then all of the sudden when you get elected you think you're smarter than the people who elected you and they shouldn't get the information," Thurman said. ... "It's just wrong."

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School board member Joe Smith said he never thought the list of his top candidates would be made public, and thought Highlander would look at the lists and hopefully see the board's consensus on some candidates.

"The lists [each board member submitted were] an effort to trim the list of 14 candidates down to a more manageable number, whether that be six or eight," Smith said.

School board member Kathy Lennon said she trusts the search firm and the selection process, and she hopes the community will have input once the list is narrowed down to about three finalists.

"I feel like we're being transparent," she said.

It's been more than a year since former Superintendent Rick Smith resigned from his spot at the helm after weathering months of turmoil after the Ooltewah High School rape case. Kirk Kelly has been serving as the interim superintendent, and is the only internal candidate to apply for the permanent position.

Some members of the school board advocated for hiring Kelly for the permanent position in October, before the board ultimately decided to hire the search firm. Kelly then asked the board to conduct a transparent search before hiring him.

The search is estimated to cost about $60,000.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at krainwater@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.

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