Guest Column

In Superintendent Evaluations, How Much Sunshine Is Enough?

by V. Wayne Young

Most superintendents have a keen appreciation of the fishbowl aspect of their public positions even before they assume the duties. If not, they develop an awareness of it rapidly and sometimes painfully.

But a recent ruling by the Kentucky attorney general has taken the concept of public scrutiny of local superintendents in our state to an extreme that makes even the most battle-scarred superintendent shudder.

The nearly universal practice of local school boards in Kentucky, when evaluating the superintendent, has been to conduct one or more executive (closed) sessions of the board. In closed session, the board of education typically holds informal discussions about the superintendent’s job performance and formulates his or her final evaluation. Once the evaluation is finished and adopted by the board in an open session, it is, by law, a public document. It often appears on the front page of the local newspaper, particularly in smaller districts.

Last October, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway issued an opinion regarding the evaluation of superintendents. In that opinion, which has the force of law, the attorney general ruled the entire process of evaluating the superintendent must be conducted in an open session of the board of education. Other public entities with boards and appointed chief executives (such as public universities) would be bound by the opinion as well.

Reasonable Privacy
Superintendents and school boards immediately began expressing concern with the ruling, calling it both unreasonable and impractical. The local school board in Spencer County that was the object of the opinion has filed litigation challenging it, and that board is being supported by both the state school boards association and the administrators association.

At issue in the opinion and the litigation is a portion of Kentucky’s Open Meetings Law that allows school boards and other public bodies to enter into a closed session for the purpose of conducting discussions that “might lead to the appointment, discipline or dismissal of an individual employee.” For many years, boards, superintendents and attorneys specializing in school law have consistently operated under the belief the preliminary elements of the superintendent’s evaluation — those discussions and drafts that precede the issuance of the final, public document — could legitimately be conducted in a closed session of the board.

The reasons for conducting these preliminary proceedings in private are both rational and numerous. These discussions often could reference the superintendent’s handling of matters involving other staff members or even students, all of whom have a right to confidentiality. Board members may want to discuss rumors circulating in the community that are unsubstantiated, but need to be addressed.

And, as many superintendents know too well, anytime the board discusses the superintendent’s performance, it “might lead to … discipline or dismissal.” An individual board member may have developed a desire to remove the superintendent. Upon sharing that desire with other board members, the resulting discussions have the potential to intensify or mitigate that desire, to enlist allies or opposition. To require the board to discern an individual member’s desires before entering a closed session injects a mind-reading element into the statute that the legislature clearly did not intend.

Not only do these preliminary discussions logically fit under the exception allowing closed sessions, there are other practical considerations that support this interpretation as well. Superintendents are constantly subject to public scrutiny in their job performance. Board members routinely hold the superintendent accountable at regular public board meetings. At those same meetings, members of the community have the opportunity to express their opinions of the superintendent’s performance. Requiring informal, preliminary discussions regarding the formal evaluation to be held in public does nothing to enlighten the community about the job performance of the superintendent.

In fact, a strong argument can be made that holding these discussions in public will actually detract from a thorough and effective evaluation. Board members may be less likely to discuss delicate, confidential or controversial issues in a public setting, pulling their punches so to speak.

In school districts experiencing some unrelated but volatile situation, such public meetings could take on a circus-like atmosphere. While it would make for a wonderful sensationalized front- page news story, none of this would contribute to the true purpose of the superintendent’s evaluation or to the community’s ability to assess his or her performance.

Harmful Outcome
The simple fact is that the job perform-ance of a school superintendent is always a public matter. Citizens can assess it on a regular basis, in a variety of forums — board meetings, letters to the editor, e-mails to board members, etc. They can commend or criticize the final, public evaluation by the board. And, of course, they always have the ultimate opportunity to conduct their own evaluation of board members and the superintendent at the ballot box.

There is simply nothing to be gained by this impractical and inevitably harmful interpretation of statutory language that strips boards and superintendents of their ability to candidly discuss the superintendent’s performance in private, before sharing their final assessments with the public.

Wayne Young is executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators in Frankfort, Ky. E-mail: wayne@kasa.org