It would seem that my radio commentary responding to the insults and demands of Ward 12 School Committee Member Connie Van Houten has struck a nerve. It was meant to. Make no mistake, despite their claims, it’s not the deliberately attention getting manner in which the opinions were expressed that she and others object to. It is the opinions themselves to which they object; that and the information that was made public.
Predictably, Van Houten and other of my usual critics have shared their slack-jawed contempt for the manner in which the opinions were expressed. The social media gnashing of teeth has truly been something to see. Also predictable is the way other members of the board, both past and present, have seen fit to use what I’ve said as evidence of alleged hypocrisy.
Wrote Kathy Staub, whom I defeated in November,
Transparency is for other people.
Ward 10 Committee Member John Avard, who incorrectly stated that the public was not to know the terms of a negotiated contract with the Manchester Education Association until after the Board of School Committee voted on it, posted:
Says the man who was livid that union negotiation information was only shared at the board level until the ratification process was complete. Now secrecy is ok, even though it hasn’t been sanctioned by the board.
Yes. It IS true. I’ve been a staunch advocate and agent of greater transparency and have tasked the board when it has failed to live up to its obligations under the law. That said, I have also steadfastly stood by the confidentiality requirements of our search for a new superintendent, which begs a question: Have either I or the committee acted in such a way as to deprive members of the board or the public of information to which they would be entitled by the state’s Right to Know Law? No, and those who argue, state or otherwise infer the contrary, especially Van Houten, ought to offer whatever evidence they can to justify their “suspicions” about the process we’ve gone through. Truth be told, they really can’t because none exists. Therefore, an examination as to why these attempts to derail the search process is in order.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
With a vote of 12 to 3, the Board of School Committee formed a special subcommittee to conduct the search for a new superintendent. Establishing a such a subcommittee was nothing new as prior boards had done the same. The enlightening discussion over whether or not the search should be conducted by a subcommittee or the entire board starts on page 88 in the minutes of the May 23rd meeting, at which the vote was taken. Van Houten voted against the special search committee.
Let’s deal with the issues of transparency, shall we?
As with any committee, our agendas, meetings and minutes are public. The only exception to that is when the law says they may not, or must not, be. The agendas of all our meetings and their minutes, when allowed, are all posted on the district’s Web site. Any supplemental materials received or created have been posted in an online folder with the agendas. All of our public meetings were recorded by Manchester Public Television. If you want to watch the meetings or read the minutes to determine whether or not the committee has adhered to the process it publicly said it would, it’s all available on line. Moreover, among the duties of Board Clerk Maura Lahey is assuring compliance with the state’s Right to Know Law. Were we acting in a manner that deprived either the board or the public of its right to know, Clerk Lahey would have something to say. She hasn’t said anything.
The committee has necessarily conducted some of its business privately. Everybody knew it would have to and it was discussed and explained in public session. More often than not, those who apply for positions like this do so without the knowledge of their current employers and with the condition of absolute confidentiality. We publicly determined that the consultants we hired would receive and screen all applications submitted to determine whether or not they met the criterion set.
Those criterion were a compilation of the job’s description, the feedback gathered from several stakeholder meetings, public forums, on-line polls and interviews with every school board member and alderman who wanted to be interviewed and Superintendent Livingston. This information provided the raw data that created the Leadership Profile used to both determine what attributes our next superintendent would need to function well in our district and measure whether or not applicants possessed them. It was presented and discussed at length in public session on July 11th, and despite Van Houten’s allegation that the superintendent’s job description may have been changed because I expressed my dissatisfaction with it, the committee clearly never took any action to change it, which could only have been done in public session under the law.
As publicly discussed, our consultants reviewed all completed applications and did preliminary interviews with those who would, in their opinion, be capable of being our superintendent. We received the un-redacted applications and resumes of those they recommended. From those they did not recommend, we only received heavily redacted applications that did not divulge any personal or work information. No resumes of the not-recommended candidates were provided. This was, in our consultant’s opinion, necessary to ensure confidentiality of the applicants.
In between our last pubic meeting on July 11th, and the first non-public meeting on August 29th, our consultants did what they were hired to do. On August 29th, we met in non public session and discussed, at length, not just those they’d recommended, but also those who we had questions about from the redacted applications we’d received. From there, the committee determined which of the applicants it wanted to interview and announced two more non-public sessions to do so, in compliance with both the state’s Right to Know Law and with the confidentiality expectations of those we were going to interview.
In what can only be described as an insulting email to search committee Chair Debra Langton on August 30th, Van Houten, among other things, asked: “What is the superintendent search committee’s procedure? Who determined it?”
My initial answer on the air was “none of your business, and we did it in consultation with our consultants, but since you asked…” I then recounted much of what we’d done in public to demonstrate we had followed the public process we established in our public meetings. That, clearly, is everybody’s business, as it should be. What’s not the business of anybody but the members of the committee is the discussion we had with our consultants about which candidates we wanted to interview, how we would handle the questioning and the interviews. The only information we are permitted or required to share with the board is the information about the candidates we have recommended for the position. Not for nothing, they are all outstanding candidates whose credentials are likely to impress the board.
With respect to that aforementioned demeaning email, let’s clear the air on a few things.
- I did not disclose any non-public information, nor did I disclose any information that the board should have had. While, in truth, it may have been better for me to have said nothing as the situation was still fluid, the board was not deprived of any pertinent information. When the committee makes its final report to the board, all the information we are allowed to reveal will be provided.
- Committee members consistently opposed a “pay to play” scenario involving the Chamber of Commerce, which never sought to be a voting member of the committee. To say, or even suggest, otherwise is utterly false. MEA President Sue Ellen Hannan made a similar suggestion, seeking a seat at the table after Board Vice Chair Arthur Beaudry asked if they’d be willing to donate funds to pay for the search, which was also declined.
- The committee never initiated discussions over expanding its numbers. It simply responded to requests made of it, which were declined. Van Houten, knowing the board’s rules don’t allow for committees to add to or determine their own membership, never asked the committee for membership and was, therefore, never “ignored” by the committee.
Van Houten’s been no more “excluded” from this committee’s non-public session than she’s been “excluded” from non-public sessions involving the Special Committee on Negotiations, the Student Conduct Committee or any other committee that enters non-public session. Non-public session is for members only; always has been, always will be. The idea that she should have access to the non-public sessions of a committee she’s not on is without precedent.
- Van Houten’s inference that Langton’s excluded non-committee members from the non-public sessions because they weren’t “capable” of maintaining confidentiality is beneath contempt as it stands contrary to all that she knows, or should know, about these matters after having served nearly three years on the board.
This list could continue, but you get the point. The committee has been, and will continue to be, entirely transparent and it won’t be long before the dates for the finalists visits to the city, which will include various forums for the public, are announced. A relevant point on this topic would be that things which have yet to be arranged cannot be announced.
Before I close, Avard’s dishonest shot requires a response, which is simply this: He insisted that the teachers’ contract be kept and voted on in secret prior to its public release. His position was a flagrant violation of the Right to Know Law and was corrected by the district’s attorney which forced the document’s release. The idea that the state’s Right to Know law needs to be sanctioned by the board to be followed, or can be ignored by an action of the board, both of which are implied by his comment, is as specious as Van Houten’s continued invective against those committees she votes against, but nonetheless bitterly complains about and attacks because she’s not a member of them for reasons that seem virulently personal and intended to sabotage the work at hand. It’s really quite sad, actually, especially given her insistence that the board adopt an “ethics policy,” which itself flagrantly violated the Right to Know Law, to govern board member behavior.
Yes, my criticism was sharp and my tone tough, even disdainful. It was intentional in the hopes of drawing attention to her continuously false diatribes against board members and committees who are actually doing a pretty good job with the difficult tasks asked of them. Just because she didn’t get appointed to committees whose creation she opposed is no reason to sully the good works of those who were appointed and it’s past time she be held to account for her actions.
Addendum: Since some who have read this article dispute the claim that the MEA suggested its own “pay to play,” I will provide specific details of what transpired. After our first meeting on June 6th, at which how to pay for the search firm was discussed, Beaudry approached Hannan and Vice President Maxine Mosley. Paraphrasing what he said, he suggested the union had funds it could contribute and asked for a $5,000 donation. Hannan said, for that kind of money they’d “want access.” Beaudry said they’d have focus groups and stakeholder meetings. She replied “we want a seat at that table,” pointing to where the committee had held its meeting. Beaudry said something to the effect of “I’m not sure about that” and the conversation ended.
That conversation reinforced my position not to solicit private funding for the search, which I expressed during that meeting. Hannan wasn’t joking and my point in raising it wasn’t to cast aspersions, but merely to say that the Chamber wasn’t the only group to suggest such an arrangement and it wasn’t the first.
CORRECTION: After speaking with Mosley, I write to correct that she was with Hannan at the time this discussion took place. She was not and I apologize for the error and must have confused her for whomever else was present for that conversation. ~RH Girard