Oh, the irony. Last week, the Barrow County Board of Education held another in a string of closed-door meetings. In recent weeks, the Barrow BOE has held several closed-door meetings to renew the contract of superintendent Wanda Creel and to review her performance, and for other personnel matters. As provided by law, those meetings are allowed to be closed to the public. In addition, the final review report by a BOE of a superintendent is allowed to be kept secret under Georgia Law.
Last week, however, it was the Barrow BOE that was reviewing itself. The Georgia School Boards Association provides a format for local boards to do a yearly self-assessment. A lot of boards reportedly participate in that process. Indeed, other kinds of local governments also review themselves from time to time. It’s probably not a bad idea, but in practice it’s often laughable. A decade ago, the nearby Jackson County Board of Commissioners did a self-assessment and gave itself an “A” as a result. But the public didn’t really agree with that and in the next election cycle, tossed out board members. Ego met reality.
But school boards are different than other kinds of government boards. Unlike county governments, school systems are in the business of holding others accountable. Students get grades. Teachers get reviewed. School systems get grilled by the state and by accreditation agencies. And parents also hold school leaders accountable for their decisions.
So it’s something of a disconnect for a local school board to do a self-assessment in secret. If that same board holds its administrators and teachers and students to standards of accountability, then shouldn’t it hold itself to that same standard? Shouldn’t it be willing to hold itself up to parents and taxpayers and reveal how it self-assessed?
This has become even more important in recent years as local school boards have increasingly sought ways to avoid public accountability. They often hide controversial decisions behind the veil of “student privacy” or “personnel.” That was the Barrow BOE’s excuse last week — that they also talked about some other school officials, so they used that as a reason to close down the entire self-assessment process.
School boards have increasingly made it difficult for parents and taxpayers to get on a board agenda to comment or ask questions. Most school boards make parents jump through a lot of hoops before they’re allowed to appear on a BOE agenda. Even then, parents are often told to not discuss specific student issues because that “violates privacy.” (Which is very questionable; if a parent wants to discuss his child’s problem in public, then how does that violate “privacy?”)
The real question now is: Why did the Barrow BOE feel the need to self-assess in secret? Why not articulate that process in the open?
It could be because the board itself is reportedly divided on how to deal with superintendent Creel’s management style and her future in the school system. Creel has been controversial and a lightning-rod for a number of critics in the system and the community. The board appears to be split in its support of Creel and perhaps board members didn’t want that crack to be exposed to the community.
Or it could be ego. School board members often come to believe they’re above answering to anyone. Although elected, they don’t typically face the same kind of public and political grilling as do members of other local governments.
But school boards are the most powerful local public government in any community. They set the largest tax rate in the county and control the most local government money. In Barrow County, the BOE is the largest single employer in the county. And the Barrow BOE touches the lives of not just its 13,000 students, but also their families and some 2,000 employees.
Given its huge importance, the BOE should be held to the highest standards of accountability of any local government.
That’s the disconnect. Rather than holding itself to such a standard, the Barrow BOE hid behind closed doors to give itself a grade. In addition to the legal issue — there is nothing in Georgia law that allows BOEs to do self-assessments in secret — there is the moral issue. How can the BOE pretend to lead when it seeks to hide?
There are a lot of issues in the Barrow County School System, from serious budget concerns to academic quality. The system is converting to a charter system and it is about to begin a major building program. And there’s still the question mark about how effective, or ineffective, its leaders are.
For this BOE to seek the cover of darkness for a self-assessment rather than openness and transparency smacks of hypocrisy. How can it demand accountability of others when it has failed to hold itself openly accountable?
As a small way to bridge this divide, the Barrow Journal’s online poll this week allows the community to give the Barrow BOE a grade. And in the end, it isn’t that board’s self assessment that matters, it’s the assessment of the community.
You can find that poll at www.barrowjournal.com.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of the Barrow Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.