COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Resumes and job applications for Columbus City Schools’ next superintendent are being kept confidential, despite state laws that designate resumes and application materials for public jobs as public records.

When the district announced the names of its top six contenders for superintendent Monday, NBC4 requested their application materials.

A records clerk, who did not give their name, replied, “There are no records responsive to your inquiry,” saying the district was not in possession of the records.

The clerk referred further questions to Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, a Columbus law firm hired by the district to help with its superintendent search. According to the district’s financial records, which are available on its website, CCS has paid Taft nearly $42,000 for its services.

“A public office’s obligation to turn over application materials and resumes extends to records in the sole possession of private search firms used in the hiring process,” the Ohio Attorney General’s 2023 Sunshine Laws manual reads.

NBC4 requested the records from Taft. Attorney Janica Pierce Tucker replied that the firm had “no public records responsive” to the request.

“Ohio law defines a public record as a record ‘kept by’ any public office. While the Board reviewed copies of the application materials at its May 1, 2023 meeting, neither the District nor Taft has kept those records at any time,” Tucker said in an email. “The records have remained in the possession of Ray & Associates, Inc. at all times. Additionally, as Ray & Associates is a contractor of Taft, the details of the applicants and their materials are confidential under attorney/client privilege.”

Ray & Associates is a firm based in Iowa, which specializes in searches for school leadership positions. The firm declined to comment, referring questions to Taft.

NBC4 shared Tucker’s response with Susan Gilles, a professor of law at Capital University.

“Here, there seems to be some kind of argument that just because the school district hired a law firm and then they hired another private entity — so, you have two levels of entities – that somehow makes it not a public record,” said Gilles, who has represented journalists at the Cleveland Plain Dealer seeking public records. “I don’t find that particularly convincing.”

Gilles pointed out another argument from Tucker, hinging on the term “kept by.”

If the records are never kept by a public office – or its agent – they’re not public, the Sunshine Laws manual states, referencing a 2003 Ohio Supreme Court case brought by the Cincinnati Enquirer against the Cincinnati Board of Education.

“What happened is the school district invited (superintendent) applicants to come,” Gilles explained. “And the applicants brought their papers with them, showed them to the school board during executive session, and then the school board said, ‘If you leave them, then they’re public records. But if you take them back, we’ve never had them. And therefore, they’re not public records because they’re not kept by us.'”

The court ruled in favor of Cincinnati schools, which was represented by Taft.

Still, Gilles points out that the scenario in Columbus differs from the Cincinnati case.

“The search firm in Iowa — even though they were hired by a law firm — they’re still going to be an agent of the school board. So if they have those resumes and applications, which apparently they do, you can’t use this, ‘The applicants never gave them up’ argument.”

On its website, CCS provided links to bios for each of the three finalists, whittled down Thursday from the list of six, on its website. It is not clear who wrote the bios.

The district has not answered questions about why it has taken steps to keep the job applications confidential.