‘Tis the season to be thankful, so let’s start by saying the Monroe County Community School Corp. did a good job of involving the public when it searched for a new superintendent in 2008.
The board got public input on what qualities to look for in a school leader. When the search was down to three finalists, the board made their names public and had all three take part in community forums. It was a good process with a good outcome: the appointment of J.T. Coopman as superintendent.
Now Coopman is retiring and the process starts again. And some board members are bristling at suggestions that the early stages should be more open – and comply with the Indiana Open Door Law.
After School Matters questioned plans for a closed-door executive session on Tuesday, MCCSC board member Valerie Merriam posted to the Support Our Schools community forum that “the board does, indeed, know what can and cannot be discussed during executive session” and insisted concern about an illegal meeting was “the misconception of the blogger.”
“I want to assure everybody that nothing was discussed at the executive committee meeting that shouldn’t have been discussed,” Merriam said at Tuesday night’s public school board meeting, a few hours after the closed meeting.
Board member Jim Muehling said people who are worried about transparency should “seek help, because they are clueless.” (It wasn’t clear if he was talking about transparency regarding the superintendent search or spending plans, or both).
The announcement for Tuesday’s executive session cited two exceptions from the Open Door Law that allow meetings to be held behind closed doors. One was to receive information about prospective employees, presumably candidates for interim superintendent. That’s perfectly legitimate.
The other was to meet with a consultant, apparently executive search consultant Ron Barnes, to undergo training “about the performance of the role of the members as public officials.”
According to Steve Key, executive director and general counsel with the Hoosier State Press Association, the “training” exception was designed to help new school board members get up to speed. “It allows them to be able to ask stupid questions and not reveal their ignorance of the process,” he said.
The MCCSC board members, most of whom took part in a superintendent search just two years ago, shouldn’t need that kind of orientation. If they want to talk with a consultant about what’s involved in a superintendent search in 2010, there’s no reason they can’t do it in public.
Key said it may be OK for the board to meet privately with a consultant to learn about its options, but not to decide behind closed doors how to conduct the search. “When they go from being instructed to decision-making, they’ve crossed a line and gone contrary to the Open Door Law,” he said.
School board member Sue Wanzer said that she suggested Tuesday’s meeting with Barnes take place in public, and she was disappointed the entire board didn’t agree. But she was encouraged that the board agreed to do some search-related business in the open – it will have a public work session next Tuesday to discuss whether an “executive council” should temporarily lead the district.
However, the board has also posted notice for another closed-door meeting on Dec. 6 – again “to train school board members with an outside consultant about the performance of the role of the members as public officials.” Does the board simply not take well to training? Or is something else going on?