Seattle School Board members have decided not to ask superintendent finalists to answer questions at a public meeting, in part because they're worried overly negative attendees would scare off candidates.

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In about a month, the Seattle School Board will choose the next leader of the city’s public schools.

You will not meet this person before he or she is chosen.

That’s because, unlike in previous superintendent searches, the board has decided not to let members of the public directly question the finalists at a public meeting.

Instead, each of the three finalists will interview with the board and a 25-person focus group, visit a school and hold a 45-minute news conference.

The reason, in part, is that board members are worried that the candidates would be scared off by overly negative questioning at public meetings. Members also said they think they’ll get more useful feedback from the focus group.

It’s a move made on the recommendation of the Illinois-based firm conducting the search, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates. It’s driven by bitter feelings from the city’s past two superintendent searches, in which finalists dropped out after the public meetings.

Some local education activists are upset because they feel that, in the words of district watchdog Cecilia McCormick, the new approach “does not pass for an open, transparent process.”

But it’s strongly supported by School Board members — including two who won seats in November after campaigns that focused on increasing community engagement.

“I really want to be channeling everybody in the community as we make this decision,” said one of the new members, Marty McLaren, of West Seattle. “But, you know, I am an elected representative and I feel like I do have some capacity to do that.

“There are people out there that aren’t going to buy that,” McLaren added. “And I regret that. But I respect it.”

McLaren and fellow new board member Sharon Peaslee said they were initially skeptical of the process but were advised that a more closed process would yield more candidates.

Peaslee did note she is conflicted about the process and will push for televising the focus-group interviews.

Board President Michael DeBell said the board learned from the public meetings during the district’s last superintendent search after Raj Manhas resigned in 2006. “We had people jumping up and yelling things, trying to ask questions several people at a time,” he said. “It was kind of messy and not necessarily productive.”

A community-input process centered on the focus group will be more productive, said board Vice President Kay Smith-Blum, noting the group includes representatives of all parts of the city and five randomly selected applicants.

The public already has weighed in on the qualities it would like to see in the next superintendent and will see media coverage of the candidate visits, she said.

The finalists are expected to come to Seattle during the week of April 23. A decision is expected in early May.

The concerned community members say parents and others deserve an opportunity to question the finalists themselves.

In addition, critics say, it’s important for the finalists to understand how passionate Seattle residents are about their schools.

“It is intense and it is many-faceted, and a superintendent who doesn’t absorb that right out of the gate is going to have a harder time succeeding,” said Michelle Buetow, a former School Board candidate who supports letting citizens question the candidates, even though she earned a spot on the focus group.

“We need a candidate to see the reality of the situation, not just our best face forward.”

McLaren would have agreed with that a year ago, she said. But she explained that her time on the board has showed her that things are more complicated than they appear.

“In no way does it diminish my commitment to transparency, but I feel like there is a time when we need to be more discreet,” she said.

Superintendent search processes vary widely by state and district, and the openness of the process is a widely debated topic.

There is no Washington state law governing superintendent searches, said Nathan Olson, a spokesman for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Around the Puget Sound area, several school districts have opted for public meetings with finalists during their searches this year. That includes Highline School District, where board members credited interim Seattle schools chief Susan Enfield’s community-meeting performance as a reason they chose her.

About 40 people applied for Seattle’s superintendent vacancy, DeBell said. Board members plan to meet Thursday to begin to narrow the field.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.