School trans­parency un­der scru­tiny

Birks: District will no longer an­swer ques­tions in writing

New Haven Register (New Haven, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Brian Zahn

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.

Birks

Brian Zahn / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Par­ent Jill Kelly speaks to the New Haven Board of Ed­u­ca­tion.

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