By JEROD CLAPP
Without a vote, details of personnel changes within Greater Clark County Schools are no longer publicly included on the board of trustees’ online agenda website.
Sandra Lewis, general counsel for the district, said with privacy concerns as well as last-minute agenda changes this year, it makes sense to discontinue publishing the hirings, firings and transfers of staff on the Internet prior to school board meetings.
“We’re certainly doing what’s allowed by state law and we think this will improve information we’re trying to get the board in advance of a meeting,” Lewis said in an interview after this week’s meeting. “We’re trying to be a little more compassionate about what’s on our personnel report.”
ISSUES, LAW AND POLICY
In 2010, the district began using of BoardDocs, a website where the agenda and all its supporting documents are publicly viewable the Friday before meetings, which are typically held on Tuesday nights. Personnel reports have always been a part of the supporting agenda documents available for public viewing.
At the beginning of five meetings this year, the board has approved amendments to the personnel agenda to work in new hires, voluntary and involuntary transfers and firings. But while the board has announced an addendum to the personnel report openly, they didn’t disclose who was involved or what position until after the report had been approved by a vote.
Lewis said by state law, the board isn’t required to disclose those kinds of addendums when they’re made and don’t have much they’re required to do other than post an agenda with date, time and place information.
“The school board meets in a public format, but the meetings are not public,” Lewis said at the meeting. “And I know that’s kind of hard to understand, but we do not have to allow public comments on agenda items or other items — but we do that because we want to hear what our employees and constituents and community have to say.”
Superintendent Andrew Melin said along with the “consternation” caused by the additions, there are also privacy concerns associated with making the reports publicly available prior to meetings.
“It’s something that throughout the year has caused potential issues because we care about our staff members, and we want to make sure that we’re honoring and protecting their privacy to the greatest extent that we can,” Melin said. “I know our community feels different ways about this, but I thought it’s time for us to look hard at what we’re doing with these personnel reports.”
He also said there was the possibility that the district could open itself to legal action for posting that information.
But David Emmert, legal counsel for the Indiana School Board Association, said he wasn’t aware of any violations in state law by posting the reports before a meeting.
“They are not confidential items,” Emmert said. “The fact that maybe you have a dismissal or a separation [from the district], there really is no privacy issue that I know of. I don’t see there’s any guarantee of confidentiality in the law. I think that what they were doing did not violate anyone’s privacy rights.”
Lewis said excluding personnel reports from BoardDocs would also provide a courtesy to job applicants in the event an applicant hasn’t told their current employer about looking for another job and their position isn’t approved by the board.
In an email, Lewis said neither the board nor the district are bound by official policy to make the personnel reports visible to the public before they’re voted upon, therefore bypassing the requirement of a majority vote from the board to change the practice.
“...Board Policy 9300 sets out the format to be used for agendas but does not state what has to be made public prior to board meetings,” Lewis said in an email. “It is protocol not policy that has created the transparency on [Greater Clark] school board actions. No vote is needed to change the protocol for not publishing the personnel report in advance of its approval.”
The policy says the superintendent must prepare an agenda to post on BoardDocs, but it does not say the supporting information must be available to the public.
Melin said he’s never worked for a district that posted personnel reports publicly before they were voted upon. He said he believed it was an uncommon practice in the state.
Emmert said while the Indiana School Board Association doesn’t conduct surveys or keep track of what boards make public, he echoed Melin’s sentiments.
“I’ve been here since 1978 and this is the first I’ve heard of that,” Emmert said. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a board being so open under the Open Door Law.”
He said just as it’s perfectly legal to post those before a meeting, it’s also perfectly legal to stop that practice.
“That’s just a local, discretionary decision,” Emmert said. “And apparently for whatever reason the administration was having administrative difficulties with what was happening and took a legal position that’s valid to not do it anymore.”
Stephen Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, said he thought the board should be commended for making those reports available to begin with and doesn’t think changing the practice is a good move. He said the issues could have been solved by posting the amended report online after the meeting.
“That would have been a very easy and positive way to address the issue,” Key said. “Now what they’ve done is taken a step backward, so now the citizens won’t know what personnel items are coming up until after the meeting, which is too late for them to inform the school board of how they feel about those decisions.”
He said in dealing with decisions about teachers, principals and other personnel, the public tends to get very emotional about them. He said removing the postings denies their ability to address the board before or during the meeting about those decisions.
Melin said while the district wants to maintain a good level of transparency, keeping personnel reports private before a vote solves privacy issues and addendums to the report.
“BoardDocs is a great tool, we want to continue to utilize it, we still want to continue to connect information to those documents...,” Melin said at the meeting. “We want to make sure that there out there in advance for our public. But as it relates to the specific personnel reports, specific personnel items, for all the reasons we have said, we no longer want to continue to do that.”