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Editorial: Keep school superintendent evaluations open

March 23, 2010

In Wednesday’s M-I, our editorial board will be coming out against Senate Bill 178, which was passed by the House Education Committee today and is heading for a vote by the full House.

The bill would allow school board to hold “preliminary” discussion about a superintendent’s evaluation behind closed doors, though the final “summative” report on a superintendent’s performance would be discussed and adopted in the open.

We’ve opposed this measure when it was still just being considered as an idea. The bill comes after the Jefferson County school board lost a legal challenge to the state’s open meetings law regarding superintendent evaluations. The board had conducted its evaluations in private, and a circuit court judge ruled in December that the board violated the law by closing the doors.

In an editorial shortly after that ruling, we tried to discourage school boards from taking that next step to try to change state law to accommodate their preferred secrecy.

From the Dec. 22 editorial –

Unfortunately, the stance that superintendent evaluations should be conducted in public hasn’t garnered much support in the education community. The ruling by Maze builds upon a similar ruling this year in Spencer County, but has met with the opposition of various school boards around the state, along with the state Department of Education and its board.

The Jefferson County school board is now hoping for a legislative remedy. The board is looking for lawmakers to approve changes to the law that would specifically exempt superintendent evaluations from the state’s open meetings requirements.

It would be disappointing to see school boards in this area to join such a push that runs contrary to the idea of openness. School superintendents are typically some of the highest-paid public employees in a community, and closing off the process by which they are evaluated can distance them from the public to which they are accountable.

That next step was taken, and the result is Senate Bill 178, which has already cleared the Senate. With the House panel’s approval today, all that’s lacking is the approval of the full House for the bill to become law.

In today’s hearing, Rep. Tim Firkins made a good point about the differences that can exist between the discussions that go on behind closed doors and the version that’s presented to the public once those doors are opened. That’s the difference that was at the heart of the Jefferson County dispute, Firkins said.

From an article about the hearing by CNHI reporter Ronnie Ellis

“My understanding is the private conversation reflected “A,” but when they came out with this report, it was in fact “B,” said Firkins who ultimately was one of the nine members to vote against the bill. “Who is being served by board members saying one thing to the superintendent in private and then come out with something positive and very different in public?”

Be sure to check out tomorrow’s editorial, and weigh in on the issue. Should superintendent evaluations be conducted in public?

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