Our local School Board: What were they thinking?

By PAT BROWN,

T here may have been a turnip truck but we did not fall off of it--it must have been someone else...

Our school board has concluded that it is better for them to determine our future without the people’s input. Otherwise they would not be practicing their backroom politics.  

Last week in an executive session meeting, which we question the legality of, the school board discussed meeting the new state requirement that school superintendents be appointed by hiring current Superintendent Greg Paes for an additional year after his elected term ends. They say they don’t have time to find the right candidate.

 According to board member Lillie Hardy, the school board thinks that because Paes is applying for the job for next year, they can discuss the hiring privately in executive session, claiming the “personnel” exemption  under the executive session requirements.

In our opinion, note we said our opinion, the board does not have the authority to do this because Superintendent Paes was elected. He is therefore not considered “personnel,” who are hired employees. The School Board has no purview over an elected official just as the Board of Supervisors has no authority over the elected sheriff.

Upon further discussion with Hardy regarding the public’s right to know what the board is considering, she said she understands the paper’s position, that the people have a right to know the board’s decisions and why they are being made. 

If the board is acting under the assumption that executive session is confidential, as it is according to Patrice Boykin, they are sadly mistaken.  If they are receiving counsel to that effect, it is misguided.  She and they may be acting with the understanding that  the state board promotes only one person having the right to speak to the public on behalf of the board. The board president is incorrect.  Any board member can speak any time they choose. 

Boykin was questioned directly about rumors that she said there was not time to find and hire a superintendent before next January and that no one was qualified to hold the position other than Superintendent Paes. She denied the rumor and evaded the questions.  She was asked if she was aware that the board was considering hiring Superintendent Paes for an additional year.  She responded that the board took no action.   She was asked again about the rumor and again evaded the answer.  When asked if anyone other than Paes was discussed, she stated again, “We did not take action.”   Nor was there confirmation of any other potential candidate being discussed. 

The third time it was asked it was stated that the rumor was being circulated by her.  Again it was denied.   

Earlier in the year, Dr. Michael Waldrop, director of the Mississippi School Board Association, presented to the board a plan for helping them fill the position.  At that time he said there was adequate time to fill the position even if the board waited until June to start the process. 

So why is there now an effort to prevent the search for candidates for  superintendent? It makes you wonder.  If you are not going to heed the advice of the association you are a member of, why would you be a member?  For rubber stamping what you like?

We contacted school board attorney Wesla Leech to inquire about the use of executive session. She assured us it was conducted according to Hoyle.  She said they contacted an attorney for advice.  My question was, did they have an Attorney General’s opinion to  back their action?  I told her the Press Association counsel would differ with her advice.  She said she would be happy to discuss it with him. 

We pressed for an answer, and she said that it would be a violation of law if she disclosed the information we were asking for.  What if she is incorrect in her assumption? Don’t the people have a right to know? Because, bottom line, we are supplying the funds for her position.

Intentional usurping of open meeting laws and records requests  has penalties not only for the people involved but also for the person advising. Penalizing is not the intention of the newspaper, but we feel the community has a right to know what the plans are for the future of our schools. 

The school board seems to believe that they do not have time to make the right hire and are hoping that hiring Paes for an additional year will allow time to make the correct decision.  That is logical.  Why, then, should this be a backroom political decision?

At one time, candidates for superintendent had to have classroom and school administrative experience.  Now, under the alternative qualifications adopted by the State Board of Education, candidates are required to have at least a master’s degree and have a minimum of six years of documented successful leadership experience in a for profit or not for profit organization, state agency, business, industry, education, or the law, or be in a senior leadership position such as a CEO or a commissioned officer.  In other words, the candidate is to be an expert manager.

 We feel that Superintendent Paes should be a  final interview candidate because of the experience and knowledge he has gained on the job.  He may be the best candidate, but the way the school board is handling the hire is going to leave questions about this issue from now on. 

Our question is this: What qualifies the board members to fill the position?  First, they do not have the time for the search and interview process unless they are very committed to give much more of their time than they are already giving to board work. Just look how long their meetings take to discuss some mundane items, and to this day knowing what is going to happen if you are not on the board is like gazing into a crystal ball.  

Second, though Boykin doesn’t think the board should have to pay a finder’s fee to a consultant to locate a candidate, some board members do not have the experience to make a competent hire.  Even the members who do have the ability because of their backgrounds have expressed their opinion that it makes sense to hire a consultant to do it.  Boykin disagrees, stating to the paper--me--that the board was elected for this task and they should be able to make this decision. 

The board has no desire to be open with their meetings or topics for discussion.  If they did, they would provide information on what is being discussed, despite the fact that the need for openness has been stressed to the boards both new and old over a dozen times. 

They now use  ipads so they can keep up with the agenda at meetings.  Now, no one else knows what it going on--why?  No one else has an ipad with access to the information they have.

 The board has been getting heat over changing to an earlier meeting time.  We like it because instead of the meeting lasting until 10 p.m. it is finished by 6 or 7 p.m., but some members of the public say that starting earlier in the day does not allow them to attend meetings at all. 

The good thing is that people are now taking an interest in the schools.  We encourage that, but information should be open and available to them.  Or is openness and availability only considered when it is convenient for the board? 

A new board was selected because folks were tired of the dismal grades our school system earns from the state.  We supported these new board members.  I hope our confidence was not misplaced. 

These board members are good people and their intentions are good, but the advice they are following is not sound--if you’re just thinking about it logically.