How Transparent is the School Board?

How Transparent is the School Board?

Secret meetings and lack of public input prompt criticism of the ‘Backroom Five.’

Alexandria’s current School Board members all campaigned on increasing "transparency" at the school division’s Beauregard Street office — a reference to making the decision-making process more accessible and understandable to constituents. Yet after almost a year in office, many now doubt the willingness of the newly elected board members to be transparent with the voters who placed them in office. Some have gone so far as to refer to a majority of board members as "the backroom five" for the way they have apparently made decisions without consulting the other four members.

"I’m starting to think that if the School Board went to a restaurant, they would ask for a table for five," joked Jack Taylor, a prominent Alexandria businessman and philanthropist, during a School Board meeting last week. "You should know that people are calling you ‘the backroom five,’ and it’s something you should be ashamed of."

Questions over the School Board’s openness have been steadily building since this year’s budget negotiations, when board members removed their names from reduction requests — imposing anonymity on a process that once held members specifically accountable for their suggestions. Then Chairman Arthur Peabody failed to consult four members of the School Board before informing Superintendent Rebecca Perry that a five-vote majority had decided to not renew her contract. When outrage about the secret meeting reached a boiling point last week, board members declined to hear public comment on the matter and rushed to make a decision two days before citizens were given an opportunity to speak to School Board members in a previously scheduled open forum.

"I see some things happening that I would not let happen in my School Board if I were chairman of it," said former Chairman Ferdinand Day, who served on the School Board from 1964 to 1972. "How can you have input on the selection of superintendents but not on the dismissal?"

Day said that the acquiescence of board members to remove their own names from suggested cuts indicated a growing sense of concealment. He described the chairman’s willingness to meet in secret with four board members without consulting the other four as "deeply flawed." Ultimately, he said, the failure to hear public comment before voting on Perry’s contract was a decision School Board members would come to regret. Day is a living legend in Alexandria, and the student commons in the new T.C. Williams High School was named for him last year. Because his opinion carries such weight, many observers were surprised to see him use such strong language to criticize current School Board members for lacking transparency during a public forum last week.

"The process was wrong," said Day during a May 23 meeting, pounding his fist on the lectern. "And the ability of the public to understand the process was deliberately undermined."

DURING AN EMOTIONAL public hearing last week, several speakers decried a lack of transparency among a majority of School Board members. Attorney Victor Glasberg said the lack of public involvement revealed "hidden agendas and private vendettas," comparing Peabody’s meeting with Perry to Alberto Gonzalez’s sickbed visit to former Attorney General John Ashcroft. Mount Vernon Community School PTA President Mimi Carter said that she felt disenfranchised because two of her three elected leaders were not consulted before the May 9 meeting in the superintendent’s office. Marianne Hetzer, president of the PTA Council, criticized the board members for neglecting to explain the reason for the May 21 vote on Perry’s contract.

"This fuels the fire of conjecture and confusion," said Hetzer. "By refusing to address why a superintendent search is a priority of the School Board right now, you and your fellow board members have facilitated a great deal of rumor-mongering and an atmosphere of skepticism that extends even beyond the school community."

Peabody explained that he would be unable to explain his vote to constituents as a result of a clause in Perry’s contract. During last week’s School Board meeting, he referenced a part of the contract titled "evaluations and criticisms," which he said precluded public discussion on the board’s decision. The clause contains the following language: "All aspects of such discussions will be treated confidentially by the board and the division superintendent. Such discussions will be held in closed session so long as such closed session does not violate the laws of the commonwealth of Virginia including, but not limited to, the Virginia Freedom of Information Act as the same may be amended from time to time."

"It troubled me that it precluded discussion, obviously," said Peabody during the Wednesday night meeting. "I looked into it and found that this clause had been inserted into the contract at the superintendent’s request."

Through spokeswoman Amy Carlini, Perry confirmed that the clause was added her request.

WHEN THE CITY COUNCIL allocated $160 million to the school division earlier this month, board members were faced with the task of reducing the School Board’s proposed $162 million budget by million by $2 million. In the past, all reduction options were tied to the specific member who requested them. Former School Board Chairman Mark Eaton said that this process allowed for transparency with the public and other board members.

"Having the names next to the proposed budget reductions helped us see where the weight of opinion was," said Eaton. "It was also an important way for the public to know who was supporting specific cuts."

But this year’s budget process worked differently. The budget-reductions list was scrubbed of any identification of which member proposed or supported specific cuts. For example, none of the budget documents disclosed which member suggested slashing $300,000 from the division’s central office salaries and benefits. Another anonymous suggestion recommended cutting $420,000 from the laptop initiative. Peabody said that the decision to remove names from the list was an attempt to work toward consensus, but several board members objected to the change.

"I though we should be consistent with the process we followed earlier in the year," said Eileen Cassidy Rivera, who said she disagreed with the decision to remove names from the budget memos. "It’s yet another example of the way they make decisions and do not want to be held accountable by the community."

THE PROCESS LEADING to the School Board’s May 23 vote to not renew Perry’s contract has prompted differing opinions about transparency. While four board members complained that they hadn’t been consulted in advance of the chairman’s May 9 meeting with the superintendent, Peabody said they were called afterward. And although many members of the public complained that they were not given an opportunity to comment in advance of the board’s vote on Perry’s contract, Peabody said that no precedent existed for accepting public comment in advance of a personnel decision. Jim Boissonnault, a frequent critic of the superintendent, said that the minority members should have known that the election was essentially a referendum on Perry.

"The five board members who voted not to renew the contract announced in pubic when they ran for office that they would consider such a decision," said Boissonnault during last week’s School Board meeting. "So attempts to spin the board’s decision as a secret or a surprise are disingenuous by default."

Yet others said that they expected more from their elected leaders. Larry Williams said that by denying the public an opportunity to comment, School Board members missed out on receiving important information about the will of their constituents. Perhaps, he said, they might have learned something that would change their opinion.

"If you are concerned about confidentiality restrictions and disclosure problems, the superintendent can waive disclosure problems," said Williams. "Did you talk to her about whether she was worried about disclosure problems?"

The chairman did not answer Williams’ question, but he thanked all of the speakers for their input. He said that the board had already made its decision on the matter, and that the community should move on toward the process of finding a new superintendent. Although the decision on Perry’s contract seems to be final, the question of transparency may haunt the current School Board for years to come.

"These are people who campaigned on the issue of increasing transparency, yet the first thing they did was sneak around like this," said former School Board member Mollie Danforth. "I think it’s ironic, but it’s also a little sad."