Friday, March 29, 2013

School Committee Better Get Story Straight

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, March 29, 2013

By Bill Gouveia

When the Attleboro School Committee made a mess out of getting rid of Superintendent Pia Durkin, it was hard to imagine them looking any more dysfunctional and secretive. But in trying to hire Durkin’s replacement, they have done just that.

Despite being handed two candidates, the committee was unable to make a decision on who to hire last week. Only the members themselves know why, because they chose to conduct their deliberations behind closed doors where the public could not view what should have been the climax of this arduous process.

The committee voted (not unanimously) to enter into executive session for the purpose of discussing bargaining with non-union personnel, meaning they were going to discuss a contract for whoever the new superintendent would be. It would be a violation of the Open Meeting Law to discuss the comparative strengths or weakness of the finalists in secret session, or to make the actual choice.

After the closed meeting, Chairman Michael Tyler announced “there was no consensus on either finalist” and said another meeting would be held with an eye towards making the decision.

Of course, that raises some interesting questions: If all the committee talked about in this closed meeting was contract negotiations, how could they possibly reach a “consensus” on which candidate to hire? How can they negotiate or even plan strategy until they know who they are negotiating with?

Choosing a school superintendent is a very important and difficult task. Attleboro knows this, since they have done it several times in the last two decades. In fact, the next superintendent will be the 6th appointed by the school committee in the last 16 years. That’s a lot of superintendents in a relatively short span.

While the process is complex, choosing between two finalists is not. Each member evaluates them and votes for the candidate of their choice. It is a weighty responsibility, but ultimately you have to make an actual decision. It’s one or the other – or perhaps scrapping the process and starting all over. This is arguably the most important thing any school committee does.

Several members expressed surprise there was no decision made. Member Ken Parent said he was disappointed. Vice Chair Brenda Furtado said she was “disgusted”. The agenda did call for a public portion of the meeting to discuss the candidates, but it apparently never got that far. And again, the question is – why?

On their web site the school committee talks about the superintendent search being inclusive of the public. Their statement says “The search will incorporate a high degree of public engagement, with every constituency wishing to share their views on the process having ample opportunity to do so.”

Yet apparently the “public engagement” does not include allowing their constituents to observe what should be the public process of choosing between the finalists.

In fairness to the committee, they did have their lawyer present during the closed session. And the generalities of any potential contract do need to be worked out in private and in advance before anyone is hired. But they cannot and must not deliberate in secret on who to hire.

It is difficult to understand how they did not do that when after the meeting they spoke about not having “a consensus” on the choice. How would they know they don’t have a consensus unless they deliberated and discussed it? And where did this concept of a “consensus” come from?

Member David Murphy said he believed finding a consensus was important, rather than choosing the new superintendent by “a razor-thin majority”. While he is entitled to his opinion, the fact remains only a majority is required to make the hiring. How can any member know if there is a majority, razor-thin or otherwise, unless they have discussed the actual appointment?

This process may be highlighting why Attleboro has had trouble hanging on to school superintendents. But more disturbing is that it gives the appearance they have been less than totally open in their deliberations.

The school committee needs to come out of this process with both a good superintendent and the trust of the voters they represent. Based upon their performance, the latter may be more difficult to achieve than the former.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

No comments: