Hillary Clinton, CR Schools provide murky bookends
Few times in history has a time period devoted to awareness of a cause been bookended by two high-profile examples. Yet, that is exactly the case for this year’s Sunshine Week observance.
Hillary Clinton’s private email server provided a kickoff gift to the 2015 observance that was simultaneously welcomed (for its ability to raise awareness) and abhorred (for its overt distain of the basic principle of open government). And, even as that national debate raged, Eastern Iowa residents were provided a close-up example of a public body operating in darkness.
On Wednesday, the Cedar Rapids Community School District announced Brad Buck, currently the director of the Iowa Department of Education, as its next superintendent. The announcement followed a three-month, closed door search and vetting in which district constituents were provided no insights.
School leaders touted the need for keeping the process private, saying that quality candidates would not apply if their names were announced. So, even as the entire pool of candidates was presumably winnowed to a few finalists, the district chose not to inform the public, or open the candidates to public scrutiny.
Ironically, it was announced during an open meeting of the school board that only a certain number of elected officials would serve on the vetting committee so that the appointed body could usurp the transparency requirements of open meeting laws.
Iowa school districts aren’t privately held entities. They are public institutions, serving a public need and operating on public funds. Still, and without any open negotiation, this institution selected its key leader at a base cost of nearly $230,000 for the first year.
Cedar Rapids Schools remains embroiled in a federal investigation on racial disparities. It’s an issue, alongside socio-economic achievement gaps, the district was working to address before the federal inquiry.
As part of an area collaboration, the district also has been involved in the development of non-traditional education models offering out-of-the-classroom experiences to students of varied backgrounds and achievement levels.
Parents and staff, polled by district leaders before the selection process, listed these two items among the most important facing the district. A consultant, hired to lead the private search, said in yet another burst of irony that a key attribute of a successful candidate would be accessibility.
Buck may be the best superintendent that Cedar Rapids has ever known. He may be the worst. Time will tell. But what we know right now is that he isn’t a leader chosen by the people, and the community has little investment.
How will he advance existing programs aimed at equality? The public hasn’t heard. What non-traditional programs will he champion? The public wasn’t told. What does he believe the overriding mission of public education to be? Again, the public wasn’t privy to such conversations, and was prohibited from asking such questions.
And sure, if he fails or doesn’t live up to expectations, voters can take out their frustrations on board members who agreed to the secrecy and maybe, eventually, elect members who give more than lip service to accessibility and transparency. But, the damage has already been done.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on March 21, 2015. Photo credit: Michael Noble Jr./The Gazette