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Proposed ND bill would allow secret applicants for top education jobs

BISMARCK - Who applies for the state's most prominent education positions could soon be kept secret. A newly proposed bill would exempt applications for a sweeping range of top education jobs from open records laws, except for the three finalists...

BISMARCK – Who applies for the state’s most prominent education positions could soon be kept secret.

A newly proposed bill would exempt applications for a sweeping range of top education jobs from open records laws, except for the three finalists for a post.

The House bill is an amped-up version of one from 2009 that would have closed records identifying college president applicants. That bill passed in the Senate but failed in the House.

This version would apply to not only college presidents but also college vice presidents, chancellors of higher education and vice chancellors, provosts, deans, athletic directors, coaches and superintendents of K-12 school districts.

Steve Andrist, executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, called that a “laundry list” and said such a law would limit the public’s ability to participate in government.


“When you only release the names of the three finalists out of 25, 50, 75, 100 candidates, you’re not really allowing people much opportunity to be involved in understanding how the process goes,” he said.

Supporters of the bill say it would allow people to apply for high-level positions without fear of endangering their current jobs.

“We might, actually, in the past have missed out on some very high-quality candidates because knowing their application would become public the moment they submit it kept them from testing the waters,” said Mark Owens, R-Grand Forks, one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “I personally believe it’ll greatly open up the pool for some very important candidates.”

A similar law that allows applicant names to be private until they’re finalists is already on the books in Minnesota.

But in North Dakota, the 2009 bill was shot down 56-37 in the House, and Rep. Andrew Maragos, R-Minot, said he did not think prevailing sentiments had changed.

“I think this is going to be a tough sell,” said Maragos, who is also a co-sponsor of the bill. “We jealously guard the sunshine laws and the transparency, to a point. I’m not sure how this body will react.”

The bill is one of several that would add new exemptions to the state’s open records and meetings laws. Another would close early versions of university presidents’ reviews and board discussions about hiring and firing chancellors.

Maragos said he wanted the debate to take place, though, and if testimonials show people are passing up jobs because of the open records law, then maybe this bill is in the state’s best interest, he said.


At a hearing with the House’s education committee Monday, several groups objected to that defense of the bill.

Annette Bendish, attorney for the North Dakota School Boards Association, testified against the bill and said later in an interview, “we didn’t request to exempt the superintendent applications, and we don’t want to exempt the superintendent applications from the open records law. It hasn’t been an issue.”

Bendish said the executive director of the association, Jon Martinson, had been involved in superintendent searches and had never had potential candidates tell him they were unable to apply because of the open records law.

“I think in today’s world, it’s pretty much a given that people who are successful in their jobs are looking for upward mobility, and I really don’t think anybody is going to hold it against them,” Andrist said.

He added that he did not see a negative impact of the current law on the leadership of public education in North Dakota.

“If their support for the bill is based on a contention that it has a chilling effect on applicants, I don’t see the evidence of that,” Andrist said. “We’ve had very good luck at hiring quality people at most of our institutions under the law the way it is now.”


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