Inglewood school officials refused last week to release information about the 20 applicants who want to fill a politically significant vacancy on the school board.
Lois Hill-Hale, president of the Board of Education, denied requests for access to the applications, saying board members had not reviewed the materials, which were submitted by the Oct. 12 deadline.
According to Hill-Hale, school district attorney Artis Grant said the applications can be withheld because they are a "personnel matter" and therefore do not have to be released under the state's public records law. Grant was said to be out of town and did not return repeated phone calls.
Requests for the material came from The Times, the Daily Breeze and an Inglewood citizens group.
"We'll make a decision at Monday's board meeting on whether we'll release that information," Hill-Hale said.
Hill-Hale's position drew criticism from several of the applicants and from board member Zyra McCloud. An attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. said the case does not qualify as a personnel matter and therefore is subject to state disclosure laws.
School board trustees are elected public officials, not public employees, and their credentials would be open to scrutiny during an election campaign, said Terry Francke, legal counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Assn.
Even if the applicants were public employees, Francke said, the California Public Records Act only permits withholding information that "would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,"
Francke also said that elected officials are not public employees under the Brown Act, the state's open meetings law. Under that law, a legislative body may discuss personnel matters about public employees in closed session.
The applications should have been available to the public as soon as they were received, Francke said. City and school governments occasionally attempt to withhold information as a courtesy to officials who have not yet seen the material, but "that's not the law," Francke said.
Critics in Inglewood said the failure to release the applications is further evidence that the selection process will be dictated by politics, rather than merit.
Some residents had called for a special election to fill the vacancy created by the death last month of board Vice President Ernest Shaw, saying that it would be the most open and democratic way to find a replacement.
However, the board decided unanimously last month to appoint a replacement. Finalists will be interviewed Oct. 28 and the board is expected to make its selection on Nov. 10.
Some applicants for the post expressed surprise last week that the information was being withheld because the school district had informed them in writing that the applications would be a public record.
"If they don't let the public know the qualifications, it makes it easier to do something underhanded," said applicant W. R. (Tony) Draper. "No one will know who they are weeding out or on what basis."
An outspoken former board member who lost to Hill-Hale in the June election, Draper had urged the board to hold a new election rather than make an appointment.
He has said he will run for the board if residents' groups decide to collect signatures and force a special election after the appointment is made, as some residents have proposed.
McCloud said she will abide by the district lawyer's decision, but added that the information should have been made public. Board members Caroline Coleman and Rose Mary Benjamin could not be reached for comment last week.
The June election and Shaw's death blurred factional lines on the board, which previously had been dominated by Coleman, Shaw and former board member William Dorn--allies of Mayor Edward Vincent. Dorn lost to McCloud in the June election.
Coleman remains a strong ally of Vincent, while McCloud is an ally of Vincent opponents in the recently formed United Democratic Club of Inglewood.
Hill-Hale was elected in June and appears to maintain good relations with several political factions. Benjamin's position on the board is not clear since the election.
Thus, the appointment has become the focus of intense political maneuvering. The United Democratic Club will try to exert its influence in the selection, members say, and has already held a candidates' forum that drew nine of the applicants. District officials refused the club's request for information about the candidates.
Besides pro- and anti-Vincent factions, the influence of Assemblyman Curtis Tucker (D-Inglewood) is expected to have an impact on the board's final selection.
John Gibbs, Tucker's legislative aide and son-in-law, has said he is interested in serving on the board but did not want to seek an appointment. He said he may run if voters obtain the 678 signatures needed to force a special election.