By Graham Gillette | Special Contributor to Iowa Watchdog
DES MOINES — When the Des Moines School Board began its search for a new superintendent in May, district spokesman Phil Roeder advised the board to present a united front to the public and to applicants.
Only the board president should speak to the media, and bold and robust board conversations should be held internally, he urged. He told them to keep things behind closed doors.
Boy, did they.
While the board was unable to present a united front about the person finally selected, it remains unified in its commitment to keeping deliberations and the selection process a secret.
You would think they would have learned from their mishandling of former Superintendent Nancy Sebring’s departure, in which then board president Teree Caldwell-Johnson lied on camera as to why the superintendent was leaving. She said Sebring needed more time to prepare for her new job in Omaha when, in fact, she resigned after board members discovered sexually explicit emails sent on her district address and computer.
Caldwell-Johnson refused Tuesday to explain her vote on a new superintendent Tom Ahart’s contract. She didn’t speak during the public meeting, where the vote was taken.
When asked about why she voted no, and for her thoughts on the selection process, Caldwell-Johnson offered one of the strangest responses from a public official I have ever heard: “I’m not really at liberty to discuss (my vote) with you. I had my conversation with Mr. Ahart about why I voted the way I did. That’s who I needed to share that information with, not the media.”
No, Ms. Caldwell-Johnson, you represent the people of Des Moines. You owe them an explanation even more than the one you thought you owed Ahart.
The board’s shameful unwillingness to include the public in the selection process of the highest paid superintendent Des Moines has ever seen — $260,000 plus an impressive benefits package — should trouble supporters and detractors of Ahart alike.
Last week, board president Dick Murphy and three board members held a news conference to announce the selection of Ahart and disclose the final details of his contract, including his salary. The board had never met in public to discuss, let alone vote, on any of this. The only way they could have decided Ahart was the new superintendent and details about his contract was to discuss all of this in secret.
The Des Moines board not only abused the intent of Iowa’s public meeting law, they flagrantly broke it.
When addressing the board last May, Roeder said, “There’s nobody that’s going to tell you this time around that you’re doing it right or wrong. It’s self-policing.”
It appears the board believes self-policing and a complete disregard of the public process are one and the same.
The board violated the law when it decided in private about who to hire as superintendent and what to pay him. Ahart should refuse to sign the contract. If the contract is executed, it should be struck down by the court as improper.