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A state school board committee chose four finalists for Utah's top education spot Monday night — but they're keeping their names a secret for a little longer.

The board's superintendent selection committee went into closed session twice Monday before taking a public vote on their top candidates for the job of state superintendent. But they assigned the candidates numbers and voted on those numbers rather than revealing their names.

Committee members then voted to publicly release the names three days before interviews are conducted, possibly in October, giving candidates who don't want their names released time to drop out of the running if they wish.

"If they don't want their names released, they should be able to exit this process privately without their name being released," said board and committee member Leslie Castle.

The last time the board chose a superintendent, it revealed the finalists' names, and interviews with the finalists were public.

Nothing in Utah law prohibits the board from keeping the finalists' names private, said Austin J. Riter, a First Amendment attorney with Parr, Brown, Gee, and Loveless, which does some work for The Salt Lake Tribune. But he said he believes voting on the finalists in public, yet keeping their names confidential, violates the spirit of the law.

"Under [The Open and Public Meetings Act] the public has a right to attend, but government officials are speaking in a way they all understand but in a way that keeps that key information from the public," Riter said, "and that defeats the purposes of the act, which is to make those processes transparent and keep those officials accountable."

Riter said if the committee is going to release names later, there's no reason not to do it immediately.

"If it's public information, it's public information," he said.

Committee chairman Jefferson Moss said it's not yet been decided whether the interviews will be public.

The committee's decision Monday night followed a discussion about the merits of revealing versus concealing the names.

Board and committee member Jennifer Johnson said she worried that releasing names will discourage applicants — who might not want their employers to know they're looking for another job — from applying in the future.

"I think we should keep it closed, not because I don't want to be transparent, but because I really want the very, very best possible candidates and as many of the best candidates as possible," Johnson said.

Castle also said she believes the board's primary obligation to the public isn't transparency but rather choosing the best possible superintendent. She did, however, vote to publicly release the names this year three days before the interviews.

Board and committee member Kim Burningham, however, favored releasing candidates' names without necessarily seeking permission from them first.

"This, after all, is not our personal decision," Burningham said. "It really is the public's decision, No. 1, and because it is the public's, they need to be involved in it."

And board and committee member Dave Thomas said he might not want a candidate who is afraid of his employer finding out.

"If you're scared of your employer knowing you applied for this, maybe I don't want you because that doesn't show any kind of political courage at all," Thomas said.

It's not known exactly who or how many candidates have applied for the position of superintendent. But at least one candidate, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, has confirmed that she applied for the job. Lockhart has declined to give detailed comments about her reasons for seeking the job, saying she wants to respect the board's hiring process.

Her candidacy has already proved somewhat controversial with some, such as Utah Education Association President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, who said she'd rather see an educator take the post; Lockhart is a nurse by profession. Others, such as Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, say she'd bring important knowledge about the inner workings of the Legislature to the job.

Gibson worked with Lockhart on an initiative to put a digital device in the hands of every Utah student this past legislative session. That push ultimately failed, with many lawmakers saying it was too expensive.

A recent poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates also showed that about 52 percent of those surveyed either somewhat or strongly opposed the idea of Lockhart becoming the next state superintendent. The margin of error on that poll was 4.9 percent.

The state superintendent spot is open after former State Superintendent Martell Menlove retired in recent weeks.

The board's decision on a new superintendent comes amid allegations of dysfunction among board members and the departures of both Menlove and Deputy Superintendent Brenda Hales. Last month, Hales stopped working, saying she would use vacation and other leave until her retirement becomes official at the end of the year.