Secrecy and the school board

The best thing that ever happened to politicians may well be the ability to cite data practices law in Minnesota as the reason for their silence on controversial issues. Fewer laws, however well intended, have cast as much secrecy over the workings of local government.

A situation brewing in South Washington County is a perfect example. Last Thursday, to the surprise of school superintendent Mark Porter, the South Washington County School Board voted not to appoint him to another term, then refused to say why.

Check out the ground rules for discussing the decision as outlined by the board chair Leslee Boyd.

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The vote also surprised school board members who supported Porter, who say they heard nothing in an executive session to warrant booting the superintendent, according to the South Washington County Bulletin:

“Mark Porter is a very nice man but we need to look at what we need in the future and what’s the best for students, and this is how five of seven of us decided to proceed,” (Board Member Marsha) Adou said later in an interview.

Kath thanked Porter for his service in a pre-written statement he read just before the vote.

“I feel the time is right to bring a new voice to lead us,” Kath added, later refusing to elaborate on his decision.

Gelbmann called the non-renewal a bad move that could hamper the recruitment of a high-caliber replacement because candidates will wonder how the board operates.

Gelbmann is Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann, a Porter supporter and member of the board.

Adou told the newspaper she’s concerned about “a big difference” in student achievement between Caucasian students and minority students, and said the district has not been doing as much as it should to improve teacher evaluations, two topics that would make for a fine public debate, but which the board members say privacy laws disallow.

In an editorial this week, the newspaper noted that several of those running for re-election last month, said nothing to indicate they had any problems with the direction Porter provided.

And we can’t help but note that Boyd and Kath mere weeks ago were re-elected following a campaign void of any publicly expressed concern by the candidates about the district’s leadership. It’s real hard to believe the reasons they had for deciding not to extend Porter’s contract bubbled up in the past month. That would suggest they were not satisfied with Porter but for whatever reason decided that wasn’t something voters should know.

Now, certainly state privacy laws limit public discussion of detailed personnel issues, but it appears some of those five board members want to use that as a convenient excuse for not explaining and defending their vote.

Residents of the district – and, by the way, voters who elected this board – deserve far more than that. To cut Porter loose without a solid explanation is puzzling and arrogant.

In that election, the school board race was the only item on the ballot. Few voters bothered to show up at the polls.