Board transparency critically important
Jul 09, 2014 | 578 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Now that the annual performance evaluation of Bradley County Schools director Johnny McDaniel has been completed, and made public, the need for total transparency by the county school board is more critical than ever.

Bradley County Board of Education members, and the school system’s central office, will have this opportunity as the board approaches its next session later this month.

Whether the gathering will be a formal one or a work session, and its date and time, have not been confirmed, as yet.

But this we know. The fact that board members gave the longtime director only a collective 3.58 out of a maximum 5.0, and the fact that members appear to be split in their assessment of McDaniel’s leadership, indicates much work remains to be done during this final year of the director’s contract.

The words of school board chairman Vicki Beaty, published in the June 20 edition of this newspaper, would indicate as much. Calling it a “collaborative effort” between the director and the school board, Beaty said the board will be working closely with McDaniel to set measurable goals that can be assessed again at a later date.

Such assessments could be made at next year’s annual evaluation, or perhaps even sooner ... at the discretion of the school board in agreement with McDaniel.

This points to the need for total transparency by the board — an understood expectation of any elected governing body — but, as of late we have been given cause for concern.

One, as we mentioned, McDaniel is entering the final year of his contract as leader of the Bradley County School System; such a scenario becomes the potential breeding ground for debate, both publicly and in illegal private settings.

Two, board members are obviously divided in their faith in McDaniel as evidenced by the wide range of evaluation scores. In too many of the same performance categories, members either marked the county school administrator with a “1” (worst) or a “5” (best). This range of grades implies both board member doubt and board member division. Neither speaks well of the board/director partnership.

Three, board members agreed to submit their evaluations anonymously for those who prefered; such a plan was an unwise scenario that would have made it impossible to identify McDaniel’s detractors from his supporters. In the end, most board members willingly signed their evaluations, as they should have. Such lack of disclosure would have been irresponsible and potentially unlawful because, as we understand it, school system director evaluations are required by state law.

And four — frankly, this should be the biggest concern among those who believe in quality education and freedom of information — our newspaper was forced to jump through too many hoops to gain access to board members’ completed evaluation forms.

Without repeating all the steps taken by the Cleveland Daily Banner to be allowed to view the evaluations — each of which has been fully documented in previous front-page news articles — let us just say too much bureaucratic red tape within the county school system’s central office hindered what should have been a simple, clean and lawful process.

Yet, to secure access to the evaluation forms we were forced to rely upon the Tennessee Open Records Act. Even then, a Knoxville-based attorney contracted by the Bradley County Board of Education felt the documents were immune from the Tennessee Code Annotated law [he cited TCA 10-7-301 (14)] and called them “working papers” that were not automatically subject to public inspection.

So, we sought the judgment of someone who should know — Elisha Hodge, Tennessee Open Records Counsel. The Counsel is not some independent think tank; it is a division of state government — the same Tennessee government that introduces, debates and passes state laws.

In responding to our request for judgment, Ms. Hodge wrote, “It is the opinion of this office that the evaluations that the individual school board members submitted are public records. Additionally, it is the opinion of this office that if the records exist, they should be made accessible for inspection in response to the public records requests that have been made.”

Eventually, school board attorney Chris McCarty forwarded the documents to our newspaper electronically, but not without taking a final legal swing.

In a cover letter accompanying the scanned documents, McCarty wrote, “... We did not and do not believe they [evaluation forms] can be requested pursuant to an open records request. We understand that Elisha Hodge takes a different position, but we respectfully disagree with Ms. Hodge. With all that said, however, we see no reason to keep debating this issue.”

Such rhetoric is not only unnecessary, it is an insult to all who believe in open government and operational transparency.

We did not ask for McCarty’s legal interpretation. We asked only for the files and that he respect the legal judgment of this state’s leading authority in transparent government — the Tennessee Open Records Counsel.

In fairness to the county school board, it should be pointed out some members openly favored making the evaluation forms public. Those who did not obviously had their own personal reasons. Perhaps some were influenced by McCarty. Perhaps some are among the McDaniel detractors.

But this is for certain.

In light of the inconsistent evaluations of the director’s performance, the Bradley County Board of Education faces serious discourse in the weeks and months to come. Publicly.

Regardless of the decisions made and however board members agree to establish a corrective action plan with McDaniel, we urge them to do it fairly and without personal prejudice.

But most of all, we appeal to the school board to conduct its work openly. At this stage, the public will demand nothing less.

This is about more than state law. This is about Bradley County families, the education of their children and the future of this community.