Sunday, December 12, 2010

Another Hibbard Heads-Up: NA/FC Schools Admin seeking public participation changes.

According to messages NAC received this weekend, it seems NA/FC Schools Superintendent Bruce Hibbard and crew are at it again, proposing new, more restrictive rules for the public's engagement with the school board who supposedly serves them. It was clear enough during the school closure debacle that Dr. Hibbard is wary of communicating with the public. Apparently, he's uncomfortable with the public communicating with the school board and each other as well.

Click on the images for new public participation school board bylaws being proposed by NA/FC Schools Administration:

The old rules can be found at the school system's web site in the School Board section.

A message of concern from Mark Kessans, president of the local teachers association:
The above bylaw was written and is being recommended for passage by the Central Administration. It is apparent to the Association that the Administration is attempting to put into place measures that will allow the administration and Board to silence both the public’s and the Association’s ability to peacefully and adequately express concerns to the Board. It is also an attempt to prevent the Public and the Association from organizing to attend and speak at a school board meeting.

The Association especially finds paragraphs G -4 and G-5 to be very troubling, along with the requirement of a 10 day notification in order to request that an item be placed on the agenda. Paragraphs E, F, G-1, 2 and 3 are very sufficient safeguards to ensure a productive, safe and orderly meeting and a five day notification would be reasonable.

I have made numerous attempts to meet with Bill Briscoe to discuss and edit the troubling language. Bill has repeatedly told me that the Administration is holding firm on this and will not agree to make ANY edits to the proposed bylaw language. I have also sent an e-mail to each school board member expressing the Association’s concern and requesting that they make a motion to amend and/or support the removal of the three troubling components of the Bylaw. After nearly twenty four hours, I have not received the first reply to my request from any school board member.

If any of you have a personal working relationship with any School Board Member, I would encourage you to make a special point to contact them and encourage them to support rejecting the replacement by-law. Admittedly by the Administration, there has been no problem with the current by-law and it has served the board well. At a minimum, please encourage board members to support the removal of the above three items. This will allow whoever is President of the Board the authority to silence the voice of anyone that would like to address the Board if he or she does not want to hear what anyone has to say. (Censorship?) I thought that we lived in America where we enjoyed “Freedom of Speech”. How does the proposed bylaw language align with what we teach our students about Freedom of Speech?

Please share this e-mail with anyone that may voice our concerns. I would also encourage you, others and the general public to attend the Board Meeting this coming Monday, December 13, 2010, at 6:00pm in the ESC. Be sure to sign up to speak to influence Board Members to either amend or “vote down” the above bylaw. This bylaw would allow the President of the Board to abuse his or her authority and have sole censorship authority over who speaks, what is placed on the agenda and what is discussed at future Board Meetings. This holds true even if the board meeting continues or is adjourned and reconvened at a later time or date.

I would appreciate as many of you as possible attending Monday’s meeting and signing up to speak regarding this bylaw, or at a minimum, attending and supporting those of us who will be addressing the Board with our concerns.

I look forward to seeing each of you at Monday’s Board meeting!

Mark Kessans
New Albany-Floyd County Education Association
Bonterra Building, Suite 100
3620 Blackiston Boulevard
New Albany, IN 47150-8529
800-638-5711 ext.# 4

Some commentary/beginning talking points:

1. Though it's become commonplace for the likes of State Representative Ed Clere and State Education Superintendent Tony Bennett to blast teachers unions for exhibiting behavior strikingly similar to their own, it's worth noting here that the local union president is the only person currently trying to inform the public that their access to the school board may be changing. Union 1, Management 0.

2. The process for submitting items to the school board for agenda inclusion was flawed even before the 10 day advance was proposed. Other than submitting her or his own agenda requests, the superintendent should have no say in what the board does or does not discuss. There is simply no justification for giving the Superintendent the authority to approve or disapprove such requests from the public. Though Hibbard seems set on acting otherwise, the elected board is the superintendent's boss and not the other way around. The school board exists to protect the public's interests, not the superintendent's. As such, agenda items should be submitted to the full board for their inclusive consideration, not to the superintendent. If the board wants to change the rules, they should start there.

The 10 day advance for agenda item requests is troubling as well, owing to the superintendent's and the school system's usual lack of public communication. As we've seen repeatedly over the past few years, school initiatives are often kept hidden from public view until the last breakneck moments before a vote. This proposed public participation bylaw change is just the latest example of what has become an all too common practice.

What's actually needed is not a shortened time frame for public concerns and idea generation but an extended period of public notification, allowing proper research, debate, and communication to take place.

As an aside: Internal communication doesn't seem to be much better. The first communiqué I received about this matter did not include the actual bylaw language proposed. In an effort to be informed and fair, I contacted a school board member in order to familiarize myself with the proposal's specifics. As of Saturday morning, at least some of the school board members had received neither an agenda nor an information packet related to Monday's meeting and had no idea that bylaw changes were even being proposed. The public, on the other hand, is expected to have their act together well in advance to be considered at all.

3. Paragraph F states that oral complaints about specific students and/or personnel will not be heard. It further suggests that employees contact their immediate supervisor about complaints relative to employment. That makes sense in every case except as it pertains to the superintendent. The school board is the superintendent's immediate supervisor. Whether intentional or not, this rule in effect states that the board will not hear criticism of the superintendent. That's unacceptable.

4. Mr. Kessans rightfully points out problems with G-4 and G-5, which gives the school board president the authority to single-handedly adjourn meetings abruptly and to limit the number of speakers. Given that no consistent guidelines are provided for making such decisions, what's discussed is left entirely up to the discretion of a single person, inviting, as Mr. Kessans suggests, abuse and censorship. If 20 people show up to speak to a particular issue and the president limits the number of speakers to 10, how will he or she decide who is heard and who is not? If the public, according to these bylaws, are not allowed to register complaints about Dr. Hibbard and three people in a row complain about him, is that grounds for adjournment?

5. The audio and video recording rules are problematic as well. Again, decisions about access should not be made by the superintendent. It's not her or his meeting. And, again, as evidenced by this particular situation and many others, the lack of school system communication makes a requirement for five days advanced recording approval untenable. Having become aware of the proposed public participation changes (no thanks to the school system) just yesterday, let's say that I'm now concerned enough that I think recording is justified so that the public can witness what transpires at the meeting on Monday. According to the rules, I won't be allowed to record because, through the school system's fault, an approval request five days in advance is impossible.

In an era when large media corporations like Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. (the Tribune's owner) are demanding that staff take unpaid furlough days to cut costs, citizen-driven reporting is becoming more important, not less so. Curtailing access for those inclined to provide it would be a clear sign that the school corporation doesn't want coverage, which is precisely the attitude that justifies more of it.


The next school board meeting is tomorrow, December 13, at 6:00 p.m. at the Education Support Center, 2801 Grant Line Road. That unfortunately overlaps with the Tolling Authority's "public forum", so take your pick or do both in succession.

1 comment:

Karen said...

What is it about this school board that no matter who runs for it on a platform of communication and transparency, they throw that to the winds the minute they're sworn in?!