EDITORIAL: How is school board being 'Open and Inclusive'?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

"Open and inclusive" was the campaign slogan last year of three Eureka Springs School Board candidates, Charles Templeton, Sam Kirk and Al Larson, running as a "slate." They won because voters believed that things would be different from the board members they voted out.

But we have to wonder where that campaign promise went, especially after Templeton took over as chairman.

The lack of inclusivity began with the selection of a new superintendent. Although "stakeholder groups" -- board members, teachers, administrators, students, staff and the community -- were involved in listing candidate qualities, one of these groups -- the community group -- was excluded from helping interview the final three candidates the board chose. The headhunter firm McPherson & Jacobson advised the community group be excluded because "community groups in the past have been unable to avoid ranking the candidates."

How is that "open and inclusive"?

In January, Templeton announced that the public, including the press, would be asked to withhold comments and questions on any of the board's actions or discussions until after the meeting is adjourned, and he and the superintendent would stay behind to answer them.

Granted, there is a signup sheet for people to speak during the public comment section at the start of a meeting, before the board conducts its business.

But some things are added to the agenda at the board meeting itself, and documents that may be connected with that subject are not available for public inspection beforehand. Even if they are, once the board's business begins, no questions or comments will be entertained.

How is that "open and inclusive"?

Such was the case with the recent KESA radio contract, which was dropped off at the administration office the day of the June board meeting, added to the agenda AT the meeting, and no copy was made available to the press or public before it was decided. Board members were told it was the same contract as last year's.

But in fact, it was NOT the same as last year's. The new contract gives the radio station the exclusive right not only to broadcast on the airwaves during live play of high school sports events but also to stream on the Internet.

This provision raises serious questions about a contract that restricts how other media will report on school events. Radio stations are not the only media that use the Internet to report.

Under the board's new rules about comments, neither the press nor the parents nor the general public had any opportunity to question or object to the new contract until after it was a done deal.

How is that "open and inclusive"?

Now, the administration has advertised on its bulletin board (and notably, not online) an assistant superintendent position. The creation of this position was never discussed, budgeted, funded or approved in an open board meeting, as would be required by law, nor (our sources tell us) was it created in an executive session -- where it would have been illegal to be created, according to the Freedom of Information Act.

So why is a job that has not yet been created, funded or approved by the board already being advertised? Also advertised, and also in-house only, is the high school principal's position. But her contract as principal for next year was approved, she has not resigned and she has contended she's "not going anywhere." From certain statements made by at least one board member, we can surmise she is a shoe-in for the assistant's superintendent's job.

We have still other questions: Why is the assistant superintendent's job being created during the summer without input from others in the school community, such as the Eureka Springs Teachers' Organization, which has repeatedly asked the board to consider their input in major decisions that will affect them and our students?

How is that "open and inclusive"?

Aside from this burning question, the feasibility of hiring an assistant superintendent must also be questioned.

When the school district is facing the potential loss of a major lawsuit that would mean it will have to fork over around $800,000 of its tax millage to the state every year -- which will put it in very real danger of fiscal distress -- why is the district creating a new position that will probably pay anywhere from $65,000 to $90,000 annually? It is already questionable whether this district, with its dwindling number of students (more than 100 lost enrollments between 2010-11 and 2011-12) even needs three principals. Officials are hoping the new high school will considerably boost enrollment figures, but that remains to be seen.

And all the teacher stipend and program cuts last year, in the name of saving money -- which resulted in three protest hearings and at least two teachers resigning -- further beg the question: Do we need to fund a position that will more than eat up those savings?

Perhaps community members need to start attending board meetings again, as they did before, and hold not only the "slate" to its campaign promise, but hold the entire board to its fiscal responsibility to the taxpayers.

Then, perhaps, the Eureka Springs School Board would truly be open and inclusive.