Waco Independent School District trustees are set to name their lone finalist for superintendent in three weeks, but the public will likely never know the names of the other 83 applicants for the job.

That is because a provision in state law shields the identities of superintendent applicants in public school districts, an exception to the Texas Public Information Act that does not apply to candidates for other government posts, such as city managers.

But the same law requires school districts to name the “finalist or finalists” for superintendent at least 21 days before officially voting to employ the person.

Waco ISD officials said they plan to interview top candidates July 22-23 with followup interviews later this month, then name a single finalist Aug. 7. The state waiting period means the finalist could not officially assume the post until Aug. 29, more than a week after the 2019-20 school year begins.

The exception to disclosure for superintendents dates back to 1995, when the state Legislature made numerous amendments to open meetings laws, renamed the Texas Public Information Act.

Butch Felkner, executive search services director with the Texas Association of School Boards, said the situation with hiring superintendents is “unique” and requires discretion.

“We understand that there’s folks who want to know, but we also have to look at the other side, too, as for the candidates,” he said. “We want the strongest group of candidates to apply as possible, and when candidates know their names are not being released, they are more comfortable applying for the position.”

He said the number of applicants drops “significantly” when the process is open. Sitting superintendents do not want their school boards to think they are not interested in staying or suffer any repercussions for applying.

“I’ve known superintendents whose names got out and their school boards had trouble with it,” Felkner said. “It protects the superintendent, their status at their home district.”

Waco ISD received 84 applications between May 17 and June 19, district spokesman Kyle DeBeer said.

The school district is seeking a permanent replacement for A. Marcus Nelson, the superintendent who resigned in March after a misdemeanor marijuana possession arrest. Hazel Rowe is serving in the meantime as interim superintendent.

TASB’s Executive Search Services is conducting the superintendent search, though Felkner is not personally involved. TASB helped Waco ISD with its previous superintendent search, and under the firm’s contract, the search will be free to the district, minus expenses, because Nelson did not stay with the district for two years.

Felkner said most applicants find out about the opening through advertisements on various education-focused websites, including TASB’s and its affiliated organizations across the country.

“It’s advertised pretty far and wide,” he said. “The word was out, and it’s just a matter of folks deciding whether they want to apply for the position.”

By now, the trustees likely have narrowed down the field of 84 applicants to six to 12 individuals, Felkner said. Typically, school boards bring in six candidates to interview for the first round. After those interviews, the trustees will whittle down the applicants to three and invite them back for followup interviews.

“Out of those three, the board will determine the one that they’re interested in,” Felkner said.

While TASB helps the trustees along the way by keeping them on track, the choice of whom becomes the next Waco ISD superintendent is entirely up to the board, he said.

“We don’t select the candidates to interview,” Felkner said. “The board has strict control over that. We’re there to help and guide them.”

The board could make a site visit to the top candidate’s school district before naming the lone finalist, he said. It often helps for trustees to talk to the people the candidates work with regularly, and TASB recommends these visits, although it does expose the candidate.

“At that point, it’s pretty much a done deal, and it’s more of a validation visit than a ‘gotcha’ visit,” he said.

School board president Angela Tekell did not return a request for comment Monday.

Nelson resigned March 21, two weeks after his arrest in Robertson County. He was returning from meeting with the Houston Independent School District board about its vacant superintendent position. A Texas Department of Public Safety trooper stopped Nelson for a traffic violation and found less than 2 ounces of marijuana in his vehicle.

Nelson entered a pretrial diversion program that will drop the charge if he avoids trouble for 90 days. He successfully completed the program last month, so his case has been dismissed, Robertson County District Attorney W. Coty Siegert said.

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Brooke Crum joined the Tribune-Herald as the education reporter in January 2019. She has worked for the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri, Abilene Reporter-News, Beaumont Enterprise and the Port Arthur News. Crum graduated from TCU in Fort Worth.

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