Update: Search firm president says ‘misunderstanding’ behind barring of media from meeting | Local News

Update, 7:30 p.m.: Ryan Ray, president of Ray and Associates, said a “misunderstanding” caused the search firm’s regional director Michael Rush to prevent The News & Advance from covering a public meeting Monday night at E.C. Glass High School.

At the meeting, representatives from the firm intended to solicit feedback from community members about what characteristics they desired in a new superintendent for Lynchburg City Schools. Simultaneous meetings occurred in the cafeteria at Sandusky Middle School and the Civic Auditorium at E.C. Glass High School.

Dale Caldwell, an associate with Ray and Associates, did not deny entrance to The News & Advance at Sandusky Middle School, where he was the only person present after one community member who had come by to speak with him left. At E.C. Glass, there were four community members present at 7:20 p.m., and The News & Advance was denied access. No other media was present.

On Tuesday morning, LCSInterim Superintendent Larry Massie released a statement that said the meeting was a “public affair that was advertised as such,” and “the media was invited and should have been granted access.”

“The Lynchburg City School Board regrets the decision made by Ray and Associates to bar the media from the meeting in question. Lynchburg City Schools has contacted Ray and Associates to ensure that future meetings involving the superintendent search are conducted according to the provisions of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act,” the statement concludes.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said because Ray and Associates is a private company, it can “set whatever rules it wants to have a public meeting.” She added she believes it is “wrongheaded to say you’re gathering public input and then exclude members of the public.”

“Not even in a representational way … reporters do not stop being members of the public just because they work for a newspaper,” she said. She advised the school board to let the search firm know how it expected them to hold public meetings in the future.

School board chair Michael Nilles did not return phone calls Monday night and Tuesday morning, instead responding by email to say he is out of town until Sept. 30. In an email, school board Vice Chairman James Coleman referred to Massie’s statement in lieu of commenting.

Derek Polley, a school board member representing District 1, responded to a phone call Tuesday morning. He said he was not in attendance at the meeting but added “to my knowledge, all the meetings were supposed to be open to the public.” When asked if he meant they were supposed to be open to the media by extension, he said he “was not under any other impression.”

Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, Ray said Ray and Associates always has had “great relationships with the media in every search we do.” He added, “In 43 years of media coverage and working with the media, we’ve never had a situation like this.”

When asked how this situation could have occurred, Ray said he wasn’t at the meeting and reiterated he thinks there was a misunderstanding.

“So I can’t really comment on it,” he said.

Update, 10:42 a.m.: Lynchburg City Schools Acting Superintendent Larry Massie said in a statement this morning the school board “regrets the decision” by a consulting firm to bar a News & Advance reporter from a community meeting Monday night.

The firm, Ray and Associates, held meetings at E.C. Glass High School and Sandusky Middle School to gather public input as school officials search for the next permanent superintendent to replace Scott Brabrand, who left in June to head Fairfax County Public Schools.

Michael Rush, regional director of Ray and Associates, denied a News & Advance reporter access to the E.C. Glass meeting, saying he didn’t want the media to publish the community members’ comments before the school board had a chance to review them.

Below is the full statement from Massie:

“I have researched a question that arose regarding media access to the meeting last night at E. C. Glass High School conducted by Ray and Associates. The purpose of the meeting was to seek input regarding the characteristics the Lynchburg community is seeking in a new school superintendent.

“The meeting was a public affair that was advertised as such by the Lynchburg City Schools in a press release Tuesday, September 19, 2017. The media was invited and should have been granted access.

“The Lynchburg City School Board enjoys its relationship with The News & Advance and is committed to abiding by the spirit and letter of the Freedom of Information Act of the Code of Virginia. It is the clear intent of the Lynchburg City School Board that the media be granted access to all public meetings sponsored by the board.

“The Lynchburg City School Board regrets the decision made by Ray and Associates to bar the media from the meeting in question. Lynchburg City Schools has contacted Ray and Associates to ensure that future public meetings involving in the superintendent search are conducted according to the provisions of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.”

Earlier: The search firm hired to help Lynchburg City Schools find its next superintendent hosted two public meetings Monday night to learn what characteristics residents desire in the division’s next leader, but despite the meetings being open to the public, The News & Advance was denied access to the gathering at E.C. Glass High School Civic Auditorium.

Ray and Associates — which school board Chairman Michael Nilles said in August is being paid a base fee of $16,000 — is tasked with soliciting input from the community and identifying qualified candidates for a new superintendent. 

Speaking from E.C. Glass on Monday, Michael Rush, regional director of Ray and Associates, said he didn’t want the media to publish the community members’ comments before the school board had a chance to review them. At about 7:20 p.m. Monday, four community members were present for the meeting at E.C. Glass.

When asked if it was common practice for Ray and Associates to deny media access to public meetings, Rush said, “I didn’t say what was common practice, I said what we needed to do because it’s unfair for you guys to know before the board knows what’s happening. They have no idea who may have said what, so that’s why we do that.”

Reached Monday night, Lynchburg City Schools spokesperson Cindy Babb, who notified media of the meeting last week, was taken aback when she heard about The News & Advance’s dismissal; no other media was in attendance. On Sept. 19, Babb issued a news release, which stated “Members of the community are invited to meet with a representative from Ray and Associates on September 25, 2017, at 6:30 p.m.” The meeting was not advertised as being private or closed to media.

Reached by phone Monday night to find out why a meeting seeking input about the qualities residents desire in Lynchburg City Schools’ next superintendent would not be open to the media, Larry Massie, interim Lynchburg City School superintendent, said he would “have to research to see what’s going on with that” before he could comment. “I’m sorry, I’m not versed on this,” he said.

Nilles and school board members James Coleman, Robert Brennan, Kimberly Sinha, Katie Snyder, and Derek Polley did not return phone calls to each seeking comment Monday night.

Caroline Glickman, managing editor of The News & Advance, said, “We are disappointed a News & Advance reporter was prevented from attending a community meeting tonight about the city’s next schools’ superintendent. We can think of few current matters more pressing than the selection of Lynchburg City Schools’ next leader. The newspaper long has represented the community in our reporting on public meetings; we look forward to continuing to fulfill that commitment in our coverage of this important story.”

At a second meeting held in the Sandusky Middle School cafeteria Monday night, where dozens of chairs sat empty, a Ray and Associates official was the only person present from about 6:45 to 7:10 p.m., and The News & Advance was not denied access. Dale Caldwell, of Ray and Associates, said one community member had come by earlier to speak with him.

Caldwell said he felt there was sufficient advertising for the event, adding “we were pretty thorough in the people we interviewed.”

Caldwell said in smaller groups earlier in the day, he had spoken with at least 70 community members along with members of Lynchburg City Council. He said the community members he spoke with desired longevity in a superintendent and not someone who would use the position as a stepping stone. Caldwell also said community members want a superintendent who is experienced with urban areas and poverty and also is a “great communicator” for when he interacts with City Council and the media. 

In a phone interview later Monday night, Rush threatened to stop speaking with the media when he was asked to explain his policy to not admit the media to the meeting and would not reveal how many residents attended Monday’s meeting at E.C. Glass, but he did explain what residents want in their next superintendent.

He said “they want the best superintendent; it wasn’t a race thing, it was that we want the best person who can move to the next level.”

When asked to expand on what he meant, Rush said, “When we ask the questions, some of the qualities that you’re looking for in a superintendent, they all basically said the same thing, we’re looking for the best person, it could be an African-American, it could be white, it could be Latino … so they’re not looking at race as an issue; they’re looking at the best person who can move the district forward and make a difference in the lives of kids.”

Caldwell said Ray and Associates hopes to finish their search by mid-December. The previous LCS superintendent, Scott Brabrand, left in June to head Fairfax County Public Schools.

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