John Stanford was hours away from potentially becoming the Columbus school district's next superintendent when the state auditor interjected himself into the process, warning board members that they had potentially violated the state's Open Meeting Act during their search, a board member said Tuesday.

Three weeks later, the board has a message for potential district leaders from across the country: Despite that Stanford, the acting superintendent, is favored by a majority of the board, apply for the job, because we're starting our search over.

Board members voted unanimously Tuesday to terminate their current superintendent search, facing the prospect of being personally responsible for "financial losses" if their choice of Stanford was the result of illegally signing off on a series of decisions during closed meetings in violation of the Ohio Open Meetings Act. The move could help protect them from potential financial liability for having legally jeopardized the first search, including the $53,000 they spent on a search firm and the salary paid to Stanford if the choice to hire him were voided.

"We screwed up the old process and we've got to remember that," board member Mary Jo Hudson said.

The new search is for real, not just a perfunctory do-over that ultimately will hand the job to Stanford, members promised. They also ensured it will cost taxpayers much more money before it's over.

Removed from the new search are the board's general counsel, Larry Braverman, whose advice board members said they relied on to close meetings, and board liaison J.C. Benton, who acted as a middleman between the board and private search firm Hazard Young Attea and Associates. The district will hire an independent counsel to advise the board, including on the requirements of the state's Sunshine Laws, and a mediator to act as point person with the search firm.

It's unclear whether Hazard Young will participate in the new search, after an email showed it apparently attempted to circumvent the Ohio Public Records Act by acting as the custodian of search records.

Board Vice President Michael Cole said what's really going on is that three members of the seven-member board wouldn't give Stanford a fair shake, having associated him with the district's data scandal, which first surfaced in 2012 under Stanford's former boss and mentor, Gene Harris.

"I don't believe in burning down the barn and chasing out the animals," Cole said. "... I think it came down to three people being vehement about not wanting him."

But a vote that Cole says would have ultimately confirmed Stanford as the district's permanent leader was scuttled March 6, when members received a letter from Ohio Auditor Dave Yost saying, in effect, if you hire Stanford, you could be personally responsible for repaying his salary if the choice is voided because of illegally closed meetings.

Going forward, Stanford should be prohibited from reapplyingcqperdictionary for the job, said Hudson, who suggested he used his insider status to steer the board toward hiring him.

"I don't think Mr. Stanford should continue to be a candidate, period," Hudson said. "I think we have to work through that as a board and with the mediator.

"Given that he was part of the prior process, he was the interim (superintendent) in the process, there were a lot of flaws during that (search) that had to do with his candidacy and serving as interim combined. I think it would be doing indirectly what the state auditor said we can't do directly. ... I think he's disqualified going forward."

Asked if she was saying that Stanford, who supervises both Braverman and Benton, somehow influenced the process in his favor, Hudson said: "I think that he was engaged in advocating for the position" while simultaneously serving as acting superintendent. "So I think what we need to do is to start from a clean slate" and be transparent with the community, she said.

Stanford did not influence the search in any way, and it's unfair for anyone to suggest otherwise, Cole responded.

Stanford did not interject himself into the search process, and didn't speak about the search with Benton, Cole said. Benton was not always included in board discussions, he said.

Stanford could not be immediately reached for comment. Benton declined comment.

But accusations were flying during the meeting about improper communication during the search, particularly between board members and the search firm.

"Quite frankly, we got into our camps and everyone got into their corners," member Dominic Paretti said. Three candidates dropped out, Paretti said, because they knew where board members stood on the candidates in advance.

Member Eric Brown said the new process must ensure that "individual board members" have no authority to give instructions to the search firm that could alter the outcome.

"This is about the other communication that took place inappropriately and making sure that doesn't happen," Brown said.

"We're all committed to do better," member W. Shawna Gibbs said.

By excluding Benton and Braverman from the new search, Stanford will not supervise anyone involved in it. It's unclear whether Stanford will reapply for the post.

Missing from Hudson's latest resolution terminating the search were any admissions that the board made decisions in closed meetings, which Ohio law prohibits. A similar resolution voted down 4-3 last week documented a series of secret decisions made by the board in private meetings, including: winnowing the list of superintendent candidates during multiple closed-door meetings; adding new, secret candidates that were unknown to the public; interviewing eight candidates secretly, four of them never having applied for the job; selecting finalists; and changing the finalist list when two secret candidates dropped out.

Cole confirmed Tuesday that the board's first two choices as finalists both dropped out.

bbush@dispatch.com

@ReporterBush