School transparency under scrutiny
Birks: District will no longer answer questions in writing
NEW HAVEN — When Darnell Goldson was elected president of the Board of Education in January, he promised more transparency and accountability.
At that same meeting, a community group dismayed by a yearlong search for a new superintendent marked by quorum denying boycotts, intentional actions to add specific eliminated candidates back into a search and a challenge to a duel, went public with a name and demands: the NHPS Advocates promised to keep the school board accountable.
Jill Kelly, one parent involved with the NHPS Advocates, has read aloud a list of questions on behalf of the group at every school board meeting, looking for explanations and clarifications on items such as contracts, bylaws and scheduling.
On Monday, Superintendent of Schools Carol Birks said providing written answers to public questions is “simply not possible” at this time, apparently ending a tradition dating back to at least 2015.
The district has not posted answers to questions posed during public comment since after March 26, Birks’ first meeting as superintendent of schools.
Responses from district personnel to public questions between 2015 and 2016 are archived on the district’s website with an index containing hyperlinks.
Birks said the district would be transparent enough in its business that the community will not
need to have responses to questions in writing. The district has goals, she said, and she does not want personnel to be distracted from reaching those goals.
But Kelly said, in an email, “My reaction is that the district only harms its own image and the community’s trust by not answering the questions.
“We will continue to collect questions from anyone who wants to submit one, and we will continue to post the questions, and any answers, on our website for all to read,” Kelly said in the email.
“We will continue to ask them during public comment as we have done to date: politely, anonymously, and with some curation to make sure they are of general interest and not overly aggressive toward individuals,” she said. “It is important to get these questions out into the general public conversation, whether they are formally answered or not.”
NHPS Advocate member Maritza Baez said she doesn’t find the practice transparent.
“I don’t think she’s addressing the questions that we’re asking in her forums as she claims, and I could understand maybe they’re having a hard time finding away to accommodate that, but for her to say she’s not going to answer any questions from a certain group is ignoring the population she’s serving,” Baez said. “How will she answer our questions then? Because we deserve an answer.”
The questions posed at school board meetings,
Baez said, cannot be answered by principals or teachers. Parents in the NHPS Advocates group also received the impression that Birks is sharing the information she wants them to hear at a series of community forums without answering questions.
“We have to have clarity, not just what she wants us to know,” Baez said.
Kelly said she has a similar impression from the town hall-style meetings.
“(W)e don’t consider that controlled format a reasonable alternative,” she said.
Two parents who publicly identify with the NHPS Advocates at public meetings are on Birks’ transition team, which concludes on Aug. 31. Only one is on the transition team’s family and community engagement committee.
Goldson said a private conversation with Birks gave him the impression the policy would not remain in place forever. Birks made no mention of specific plans of when to rescind the noresponse policy at Monday’s school board meeting.
“I really don’t have a comment as to whether I support (the new policy). The straight answer is she has to run the district and we’re not going to micromanage her,” he said. “I want to see the public feel their board is being responsive to them, so eventually we will get back to having direct responses to all of those questions.”
He said he believes reorganizing the central office staff structure should allow the public to receive written responses again. Although it is pending approval by the board, Birks lists a public relations position that reports to the chief of staff under a proposed organizational chart.
“I am absolutely sure the board will make sure (the written responses) happen” post-reorganization, Goldson said. “There’s no staff position who is directly assigned to respond to these questions, and that costs money.”
Birks did not respond to multiple requests for comment before press time.
About an hour after speaking to a reporter on Tuesday, Goldson sent an email to the NHPS Advocates with a screengrab of one of its social media pages.
“Why are people not allowed to post comments or question on the NHPS Advocates Facebook page?” Goldson wrote around 5 p.m. Tuesday. “Who are actually making the postings on the site?”
The Register found that an average user was able to leave a comment on the page, which would not take into account choices made by page administrators.
Goldson went on, asking the volunteer group why a post to the group seemed to pay a tacit compliment to a charter school.
“Please be as transparent as possible and provide the public with access to post on the site, identify who is posting under the guise of NHPS A, and answer questions related to the group’s support or non support of charter methods,” he wrote.
Parent Jill Kelly speaks to the New Haven Board of Education.