No doubt, the public runs the school system
by BRIAN GRAVES Banner Staff Writer
Jun 18, 2014 | 1033 views | 0 0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It is hard to believe it has been almost nine years to the day since I wrote the story that in many ways boosted my journalism career.

I didn’t realize the date until I pulled those old newspapers up in light of the Bradley County Board of Education’s denial to the Cleveland Daily Banner’s request for access to the individual director of schools evaluation forms submitted by the board members.

It made me think of that story and the headline that caused me to spend a year of my life tracking down what was the most heinous abuse of power I had ever encountered.

In a nutshell, a popular and successful high school principal had reported to the TSSAA some rule infractions caused by the board chairman’s improper assistance in bringing an athlete into the system.

That chairman carried a vendetta against the principal, culminating in the hiring of a school director who demoted that principal.

That is when all heck broke loose.

The director, under public pressure, granted my editor and me an interview which was to be held in the office of the attorney representing the school board.

He was accompanied by the board chairman and I began the interview.

The director kept saying to me, “You understand, Brian. You were on a school board.”

He was partially right. I had served on a school board. But, I did not understand the actions being taken.

He then made the statement that started it all going downhill fast.

“The public doesn’t run the school system,” the director said.

I saw my editor start to intercede, but I quickly tapped her knee under the table.

It was my sign to let him keep going.

He was running straight to the edge of the cliff and I wasn’t going to stop him.

As we walked back to the office, I said to her, “You know what the headline is.”

And it was.

“Public doesn’t run the school system,” the headline blared.

Four days later, the city council — with more than 150 crowding the council chambers — voted “no confidence” in the school director.

Almost a year later, one board member had resigned, two were recalled and replaced in a special election, the director was fired and the demoted principal was named the new director of schools.

I guess I wanted to tell this story to throw a yellow flag toward the members of the Bradley County school board.

Yes, as a former board member I understand the need, in certain circumstances, for discretion and even confidentiality.

But in denying access to those evaluations you are proceeding down a very slippery slope.

Your action in denying the public access to those documents is telling Bradley County residents what that school director from almost a decade ago told the city he served — “The public doesn’t run the school system.”

It was not true then, and it is not true now.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

If there is any aspect of government in which the public should have a vital, vibrant and priority say, it is that of the education of their children.

It is paramount. Nothing is more important to the families, to the children and to our future.

Since I served on a board 30 years ago, the function of school boards has changed a great deal.

In my day, we were called upon to vote upon every aspect of the system up to and including having to vote on hirings and firings.

I even sat on a committee that recommended what curricula would be used, although I had no educational background or expertise that should be required to make those decisions.

Those days gave a lot more responsibility, credit and blame to the board.

School directors basically were the tools through which a board’s directives were carried out.

Even a certified educator’s recommendations could be quickly overruled by a board who thought they knew it all.

That has all changed.

In an effort to take politics out of the system and place experienced professional educators in charge of the educational process, boards are now relegated to mostly policy and budgets.

The most important decision a board has to make is deciding who to entrust with leading local educators in the right direction to ensure children have the best possible education to prepare them for the world they will face.

What the board thinks of how that person is doing that job — one in which there can be no endgame other than success — is definitely the public’s business.

That point cannot be debated.

The director of schools also carries the largest individual personnel price tag of the entire system.

Some may argue that price is too high, but the fact is that price is what the market demands. In many respects, both Bradley County and Cleveland are getting a bargain for the salaries they are paying their school systems’ respective directors.

The members of the school board are intercessory agents for the people they represent in hiring the one person who will make the final determination as to who will be entrusted to secure a responsible and successful educational program.

I will not take this space to debate the legalities of whether those evaluations are public or privileged — other than to say in both my roles as a journalist and a former school board member, I have a strong belief and absolutely no doubts they are public documents.

They have to be.

If there was ever a time where an absolute trust should be there for any government official, it must be that of a director of schools.

It boggles my mind why anyone would want that responsibility.

But, I have found with few exceptions they are people who are enthusiastic and extremely passionate about the job — or better stated as “the mission” — to ensure a better generation takes control of our futures.

I have great sympathy for school board members. It can be the toughest, and yet the most rewarding experience of a lifetime.

But, and I cannot say this strongly enough, the school board is not a playground.

It is not the place for secrets or personal vendettas.

The board is responsible to let its constituents know when and if the person they were elected to hire and entrust with the responsibility of educating their children is successful or failing.

For in the end, the public does in fact run the school system.

If you were hiring a babysitter, and you asked for a reference and the answer you got was, “On a range from 1 to 5, I’d give a 3.58,” would you be satisfied with just having the number?

Just something to think about.