School board considers appeal

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By Kathy Lynch

Several Spencer County School Board members have expressed concern with staying on track as a board and spending taxpayer dollars to appeal the decision handed down by Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway.

Last week a decision from his office stated that the superintendent’s evaluation should be held in open sessions due to his position and a relatively low expectation of privacy.

“The Spencer County Board is the only entity able to challenge this in court. If they decide to do that, and we were asked to, we would support them financially,” said Wayne Young, executive director and legal counsel for Kentucky Association of School Administrators (KASA). “We would help pay for the litigation. No question, I think it is that important.”

Some believe the ruling could cause negative ramifications across the state and that it may not take long for the ripple effect to be felt. Even though the decision was made for Spencer County alone, in what is called a “binding opinion,” other boards, agencies, and committees would be advised to abide by the ruling, at least for the time being, said Young. Intentionally going against the decision or failing to comply to a binding opinion could result in civil penalties or fines.

A binding opinion, is just that, binding, “unless it gets turned over by court,” said Young. People “just don’t defy these things lightly.”

One problem, according to Young, is this opinion could reach outside the spectrum of education and into any public agency, committee or board where there are appointed positions.

He said that not only could this opinion affect school superintendents, but also university presidents, city managers, even the Kentucky Department of Education Commissioner, who happened to have his evaluation done in private on or about the day the decision was actually handed down.

According to Chief of Staff Doug Boyd, UK’s President Lee T. Todd Jr.’s evaluation process is done publicly for the most part. The chairman of the board of trustees hand out review sheets to all the members of the board who in turn fill them out themselves, grading the president in 10 areas on a 1 - 10 numerical scale. Once the forms are returned to the chairman, they are compiled and a final evaluation is made available to the president and public.

In the case of public school boards, this is the normal way things have always been done, according to Young.

“I have been in this business for 40 years and it has always been done this way,” said Woodie Cheek, chairman of the Spencer County Board of Education. “There are 98 percent of school boards here in Kentucky,who have always done it this way.”

There are reasons why these meeting are done in private, said Young.

“There are five different board members with possibly five different issues with the person being evaluated,” said Young. “People must have the opportunity to discuss issues. How are they supposed to bring them up? They are not supposed to meet to talk unless the group is there as a whole. The Attorney General is putting people in the position of needing to be mind readers.”

The only way a closed meeting is legal, with the way the opinion is currently written, is if there might be an appointment, discipline or dismissal of the individual. In order for that to happen, according to Young, the decision for either discipline or dismissal would have had to have already been made. Since those decisions should be made after having a thoughtful conversation, which could only happen in a closed meeting and is the preferred way to do things, the decision remains questionable.

“It is counterproductive. It is only common sense that people will be more candid and honest in private,” said Young. Adding that decisions about that persons future may be discussed.

It is common place for the evaluation to be made public after the initial closed discussion. These discussions if held in the public eye could become like a circus, an evaluation of a superintendent for example could become nothing, of no real importance said Young. Due to the fact that most board members may hold back in public and not address the real issues.

“I am in complete agreement with Bob Chenoweth (school attorney). I am not being critical of the Attorney General,” said Young. “This opinion is a clear misapplication of the law.”

“No body has ever raised this issue till this,” said Young. “I was stunned. If we don’t seek it through the court we could go through the legislation.”

As of Monday evening, the Spencer County Board of Education has decided to appeal the decision.

And even though the feelings of the superintendent has not changed, he said it still would not matter to him one way or the other if his evaluations were done in open session or not, at this point, “I feel the need to remain unbiased in this situation,” said Superintendent Chuck Adams.