Thursday, November 8, 2012

Transparency. Hmph.

The Shelby County School Board is off to a discouraging start in its consideration of the TPC recommendations.  Far from an open, public consideration of the recommendations, the School Board has instead opted for something less than its stated goal of a public process.

I go to the Shelby County School Board meetings.  Before I go, I review the agenda to find out what they will talk about.  Before the next meeting, I take a look at the minutes from the last meeting to see what the minutes captured of what actually happened at the meeting.  I read a lot of the coverage in our local media.

So I turn up at the September business meeting.  The superintendents announce that they are bringing forward the first batch of Transition Planning Commission recommendations for the School Board's consideration.  Now there's a lot going on behind the scenes, but as far as I can tell, this was the first public announcement that the Board would be considering particular recommendations.  Of the 172 recommendations, it was announced that at that very meeting, the School Board would consider Recommendations 1, 3, 4, 5, 36-49, and 121. Superintendent Kriner Cash carefully explained that these were the "innocuous" recommendations with no financial impact, but that the Board should prepare itself for upcoming discussions in the coming months about the more difficult recommendations to come.

So let's back up.  Here's the 169 page agenda for the Sept. 27 business meeting.  The agenda is published in advance of the scheduled meeting - I usually can't find it until the day of the meeting.  It's possible that it's published before that, but I don't have time to keep refreshing my screen all day on the day before the meeting.  Anyway, you'll notice on page 2, Item VIII (J)(16):  Transition Steering Committee Report.  Then you should flip to page 39 to see what district staff submitted to the School Board in reference to this agenda item.  There are fields titled:  "Description", "Recommendation", "My Contact", and "Financial Impact".  For this particular item, all of the fields were blank. 

At the meeting, district staff distributed a summary of the recommendations being presented to the School Board and to at least some of the media.  This was very important, because it turns out that since the School Board did not know that particular recommendations would be discussed, some of them did not bring their 300+ page bound copy of the TPC recommendations.  Mind you, these are (in many cases) very detailed recommendations.  The summary included only the numbered recommendations, and not the detailed explications around the recommendations.  Instead of being able to read the detailed text surrounding recommendations, Board Commissioners without their books instead relied on just the actual recommendations distributed by district staff.

So there was some discussion about the recommendations.  Several of the former MCS Commissioners had questions regarding Recommendation #121.  This should be pretty non-controversial, but Commissioners have realized that by finally bringing MCS IT systems up to date, some folks will lose their jobs.  It will take fewer folks to run fewer systems.  And unfortunately for those folks, that's probably good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

That brings us to the unfortunate lack of questions about Recommendations #36-49.  Only one Commissioner had a question about this batch of recommendations.  Shelby County School Board Commissioner Chris Caldwell asked whether the Memphis Education Association was on board with the Mutual Consent recommendation (Recommendation 47(a) on pp. 69-70).

The School Board decided not to vote on Recommendation #121, but passed the rest of the recommendations.  I know all of this because I attended the meeting.

You would never know this if you looked at the minutes from the meeting.  I draw your attention to Page Four, about half way down.  According to the minutes, "Superintendents Aitken and Cash presented 19 recommendations to the Board for discussion," then later "[a]fter much discussion, the Vice Chair called for a vote, and with 17 ayes, 1 Abstention, and 5 Absent, the motion carried and the recommendations, minus #121, were approved."  The minutes also note that the recommendations are attached to the minutes, which they are - except for recommendations 46-49.  You can compare the last four pages of the minutes to the seventeen pages surrounding recommendations 36-49 in the TPC plan.

Where does that leave the public?  Unless you went to the meeting, there was no way to know that any TPC recommendations would be discussed, or which ones could possibly be considered.  If you went to the meeting, then unless you brought a copy of the TPC recommendations, you would not know which recommendations were being discussed by the School Board.  If you missed the meeting and tried to catch up later, the minutes would not tell you which recommendations were discussed or passed.

Even for media that attended the meeting, the coverage makes clear that not much was clear.  The initial coverage on September 28 missed some key points, that it picked up the following week in its follow up coverage on October 8.  What should have been the main controversy - the adoption of mutual consent as a hiring practice - has not yet really been covered.  And of course, not mentioned in the minutes because that page of the recommendation summary was not properly attached.  But that's another post.

This sort of government practice on the front end of considering these recommendations minimized the opportunity for public engagement, and (if you were there, you saw that it) blindsided the Memphis Education Association.  Shelby County Education Association officials may have been interested in attending, had the School Board published what recommendations were due for consideration.  And on the back end of its consideration of these recommendations, it looks like they covered up which recommendations they passed.

Is it possible that the Shelby County School Board intended that consideration of the TPC recommendations unfold in this manner?  Is this the level of engagement that we should expect to see from our elected public officials?

There are some cynicial, cynical people out there that would suggest that the Shelby County School Board is not interested in having the public understand what recomendations will be considered, or when they will be considered.  Those same people might suggest that the Shelby County School Board is not interested in being transparent about owning its votes.  I personally think that so there's enough pressure on the Board to get to these recommendations, and so much need to just get started that they stumbled.  Badly.  But they can fix it.

It is far from certain that the recommendations considered at the Sept. 27 business meeting were "innocuous" with "little financial impact".  But it's safe to say that there are some much more controversial recommendations coming.  District staff will support some, and disown others.  But it is up to the Shelby County School Board to start considering these recommendations as they intend to move forward.  What I saw on September 27 was not good practice for a government body that has promised transparency and pledged to seek public input.  The Shelby County School Board must do better by timely notifying the public about what recommendations will be considered and when, and by properly documenting the results in its own records.

***In defense of the School Board, several commissioners stated that they would have preferred  to have some notice about what recommendations would be considered in advance of the meeting where they would be considered. 

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