Wednesday, April 28, 2010

School Boards, Superintendents, Contracts & Candor

April 28, 2010, 6:15 a.m.
Now with 7:00 p.m. Addendum at bottom of blog entry: "So What Really Happened?"

[This is the tenth in what is, as of this morning, a ten-part series on the Iowa City schools' search for a new superintendent: "School Boundaries: There Are Better Ways," April 16, 2010 (with links to 23 prior, related blog entries and other writing); "How to Pick a School Superintendent; And My Questions for Candidates," April 17, 2010; "Bringing Home the Bacon and Bezek," April 20, 2010, "ICCSD's Triple Play: From Bezek to Murley to Meeks; Bezek Can Talk the Talk -- On Four Hours' Sleep," April 21, 2010; "Hurlyburly Over Murley," April 22, 2010; "IC Board Peeks at Meeks; Brad Meeks Rounds Out Three Finalists," April 23, 2010; "Finalists Responses? Decision Sunday? Finalists Offered Last Word," April 24, 2010; "IC Supers' Email: Bezek Responds, Murley & Meeks Don't; Constituent Relations Important -- But No Deal Breaker," April 25, 2010; "Where There's No Smoke There's No Fire; How Many School Board Members Does It Take to Screw Up a Superintendent Selection?" April 26, 2010.]

The End of the Beginning
But 'What Did They Know and When Did They Know It?'

(Brought to you by*)

The ICCSD School Board has selected Steve Murley, Superintendent at Wausau, Wisconsin, to be Superintendent Lane Plugge's replacement starting July 1, 2010. It represents the end of the beginning of the a new superintendent's tour of duty, but only the beginning of what we all hope will be a long, productive and progressive experience for Steve Murley, the Board members, and community alike.

You read it first right here, last evening at 7:15 p.m. (The Press-Citizen had the story posted online by 7:52.)

This morning that paper, and The Gazette, had further details in the hard copy and online editions. Rob Daniel, "District hires superintendent; Murley to take over position July 1," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 28, 2010, p. A1; Gregg Hennigan, "Iowa City School Board Hires Wisconsin Superintendent to Lead District; No Decision Reported After Board Members Met Sunday Evening," The Gazette, April 28, 2010, p. A1 (the link goes to the early evening Gazette Online story and does not contain everything in the hard copy version, discussed below); Keith Uhlig, "Superintendent takes Iowa job; Wausau to begin search for new school boss," Wausau Daily Herald, April 28, 2010; Holly Hines, "Murley to Be New Iowa City School District Superintendent," The Daily Iowan, April 28, 2010.

There's not much new information about Murley in those stories. But we are left with some disturbing questions about the process followed by the Board in arriving at its decision, and the candor with which it communicated about that process to the public and media.

If you're interested in how we got here, the nine prior blog entries on the process and the finalists are linked at the top of this page. The most directly applicable to Murley are "Hurlyburly Over Murley," April 22, 2010, and his statement for this blog at the bottom of "IC Supers' Email: Bezek Responds, Murley & Meeks Don't; Constituent Relations Important -- But No Deal Breaker," April 25, 2010 (he and Meeks both responded, but too late to modify the blog entry headline).

I concluded the last blog entry with an excerpt:
Steve Murley wrote, in pertinent part, "You stated that, 'Indeed, one should be extremely suspicious of anyone who would be willing to be considered for the job of working with such a school board.' Your comment was made in reference to concerns that you enumerated about the lack of a clear governance system, delineation of measurable goals, discussion of educational innovations, and absence of metrics for results measurement related to boundary changes. I am in full agreement with you that these are indeed important issues for the Board to tackle. However, the absence of these does not indicate to me that the Board has chosen to ignore them or that the Board thinks they are unworthy of attention."
That is an observant, insightful, well written and very positive and politic statement. Any superintendent who comes here acknowledging concerns regarding our Board's "lack of a clear governance system, delineation of measurable goals, discussion of educational innovations, and absence of metrics for results measurement related to boundary changes," and can articulate it in a way that expresses optimism in the possibility of solutions -- not to mention still be hired! -- is starting off on the right foot so far as I'm concerned.

"What Did They Know and When Did They Know It?"

None of what follows reflects in one way or another on Steve Murley.

As for the Board, however, the take-away from Daniel's and Hennigan's stories (and an earlier one in the Wausau paper) is troubling.

How and when did the Board actually make this decision? Were its statements to the media and public deliberately designed to be misleading? Was its process legal? Even if legal, does it owe the public and media more candor?

As Hennigan writes in the early Online edition,
Fields said the board was unanimous in its support for him. The board met for two and half hours Sunday night in closed session, but Fields said afterward they had not come to an agreement on whom to hire.

She also said the board expected to hold another closed session to discuss the matter further. If the full board met again, it does not appear it sent out notice of the meeting, as is required by state law.

It’s not clear when the board made its decision. The board is currently holding its regular meeting and is not available for questions.
The hard copy this morning continues,
Murley said he had been in talks with the board, its attorney and the search consultant on and off since Sunday evening. Fields did not say what Murley's salary will be. Murley said they were still negotiating that.
[In fairness to Board President Patti Fields, although I'm not sure it doesn't increase rather than decrease the total confusion, she has put the following comment on the Gazette Online version of Hennigan's story about 8:00 a.m. this morning: "Greg, since you and I spoke late on Sunday night maybe you don't remember what I said. I did not say the board expected to have another closed session, I said that we had the option and we had until Monday night to add it to our agenda. For clarification, until an agreement is reached all candidates are still in consideration. The board did not meet again and it is concerning to make such allegation without actually talking to any board member."]

[And now, in fairness to Gregg Hennigan . . .. I know this is getting to sound a little silly; like, why don't I just hold their coats and let them fight? But because this blog endeavors, at least on some occasions, to be "the blog of record," and because Gregg has provided a somewhat detailed explanation of what happened, I have set it forth in full at the bottom of this blog entry.]

Not incidentally, the Wausau Daily Herald story this morning, linked above, continues to report his current, 2009-10, salary at Wausau as $152,700 (in contrast with an earlier local news story saying it was in excess of $200,000).

Rob Daniel reports, above,
The selection followed a closed session special board meeting Sunday night after which Fields said no decision had been reached. She said Tuesday night that the selection of Murley was a unanimous decision. . . .

Murley said he received the first draft of his contract from district attorney Kirsten Frey earlier Tuesday. He deferred to the school board on how the offer was made to him.

Fields said the board was talking with Murley as early as Sunday, but no official decision was made.

"Until an offer is made and accepted, everyone is still in play," she said.

Fields said the board does not need to vote in open session when selecting a candidate for a position like superintendent, but the board will need to vote when it decides what will go into Murley's contract. The final salary and benefits package are still in the process of being negotiated, but Fields said the board expects to vote on the contract at one of its meetings in May.
At the outset the Board seemed to indicate that its process would involve (1) making its first choice from among the three (which would not be announced at that time), followed by (2) a time for negotiating the terms of a contract, following which (3) an announcement of their choice would be made once the contract was signed. (Unfortunately, I cannot recall off the top of my head which paper this was in and when, but I suspect it is reproduced somewhere in this series of ten blog entries.)

At a minimum, it would seem that process was not followed. (a) If the terms of the contract are still being negotiated, and are going to be voted on "sometime in May," it seems to me there is still the possibility, however remote, that this is not yet a fully done deal. (b) Both Daniel and Hennigan report they were told "no decision had been reached" at the Sunday night meeting. The Board said at that time that no one had been eliminated. (As late as yesterday morning's edition, the Wausau paper was reporting that "School Board President Patti Fields said the board hoped to have a decision in the next few days." "Superintendent Awaits Job News," Wausau Daily Herald, April 27, 2010.) (c) Thus, I think one can fairly conclude that either a decision was reached sometime between Sunday night and Tuesday evening at 7:00 p.m., or that the Board was not candid in saying Sunday night that no consensus had yet emerged. Which would be worse?

Where, when and how was the decision arrived at?

The Board says that it "does not need to vote in open session when selecting a candidate for a position like superintendent."

There are two issues here. (1) Are there circumstances when the open meetings law permits a school board to hold their discussions in a meeting not open to the public and the media? The answer to that is, "yes." (2) Was what they did, and the way they did it, legal under the terms of the open meetings law and its exceptions? The answer to that question turns on facts that are not now available to us; but from a first glance it looks like the Board may have violated the law -- and certainly the public's trust and confidence.

(What follows is based on my memory, not legal research. It is not a "legal opinion," it is a blogger's, and former school board member's opinion. So if you really care about this stuff, and need to know the law precisely, talk to a lawyer.)

The question is not whether it's possible to meet in closed session, the question is how Board members are to go about doing that. The law requires all Board meetings to be open meetings, and that, in turn, requires prior notice of the meeting, a public agenda, and other things.

Once a legal open meeting has begun, it is possible for a Board member to make a motion that the Board go into a closed meeting -- stating the legal justification for doing so. That motion is voted on, and if passed, the closed meeting begins (and must be tape recorded).

Without going into detail about what exceptions to the open meetings law permit closed meetings, it is certainly possible to make the argument that a discussion of the merits and demerits of a potential hire -- or whether or not to terminate an employee -- could sometimes justify a closed session.

Following the closed session, the Board is required to come back into open meeting before adjourning, and to vote in open meeting on anything requiring a vote.

Thus, had the Board gone through this process, it could have announced and held another open meeting between Sunday evening and Tuesday evening; at that meeting it could have gone into closed session and agreed on the finalist with whom it wished to try to negotiate a contract.

However, it does not appear to have done that.

If it believed that it could continue a "rolling" meeting from which it never adjourned until last night, it was in error. If the Board members got together for another, secret and unannounced meeting, they were in error. If they continued talking by non-synchronous phone and email messages, during the course of which a de facto decision gradually emerged, they were in error.

If they in fact had arrived at a decision Sunday night -- given that they then announced they were unanimous in eliminating no one, and now say they were unanimous in choosing Murley -- they were unnecessarily duplicitous in saying they had made no decision.

They could have simply said, as they said at the outset, "We have nothing to announce this evening. Once a finalist has been selected and a contract agreed upon and signed, we will let you know."

They did not. As Hennigan reports, they said they "had not come to an agreement on whom to hire [and that] the board expected to hold another closed session to discuss the matter further."

As with former President Nixon, the question is, "What did they know and when did they know it?"

While we wait for those answers, meanwhile we can congratulate the Board for getting this choice behind us -- or at least almost nearly so, once the contract is negotiated, signed, and voted on by the Board.

Now we welcome Steve Murley to Iowa City, look forward to getting to know him better, and the governance policy and management tools he will bring with him and work through with our Board.

7:00 p.m. : Addendum: So What Really Happened? Here's Gregg Hennigan's take:

Fields explains superintendent selection process

Posted on Apr 28, 2010 by Gregg Hennigan.

IOWA CITY – How and when did the Iowa City school board makes its decision to hire Stephen Murley as the next superintendent?

There was some confusion Tuesday night, as you can see from the story here.

I spoke with board President Patti Fields Wednesday morning.

First, some background. The school board met Sunday night in closed session, with the goal of picking a new superintendent.

I talked with Fields after the meeting. My first question was whether they had made a decision. She said the board was “still working through our process.”

I asked her what that meant and whether they had made a selection. She said that the board hoped to have something figured out in the next three days and that they had not eliminated any of the three candidates.

She also said the board could meet in another closed session to discuss the matter further.

We didn’t hear anything more until Fields announced Murley’s hiring Tuesday night.

Wednesday morning, Fields said she was not trying to be misleading the other day. She said board members were unanimous in naming Murley their “preferred” candidate, but in case they couldn’t reach an agreement with him, they did not rule anyone out.

“We can’t even say we’ve ‘selected,’” Fields said, “because when you start saying you’ve selected, then it means you also threw (out) the other two.”

She said she had to choose her words carefully on Sunday. I wish I had asked her then if they had a “preferred” candidate.

By the way, the Press-Citizen ran into this issue of semantics too.

Patti, I may have to give you the “Meet the Press” treatment from now on.

(That is a joke. Fields and I had a very good talk this morning.)

On to her comments on the GazetteOnline story. I initially wrote that she said Sunday that the board “expected” to hold another closed session.

I quickly changed that to “may” in subsequent updates and for the newspaper, but I apologize for the poor word choice in the first update.

And on her other point, I did not have a chance to talk with board members Tuesday night. Fields made the announcement during the board meeting, and the meeting continued, without a break, until well past our deadline. I did not allege that they broke the open meetings law. I just pointed out that if they met, they did not send out the required notice.

Believe me, I wanted to ask some questions.

Gregg Hennigan, "Fields Explains Superintendent Selection Process," Gazette Online, April 28, 2010.


* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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