Leaders of the Lawrence school district are slow learners when it comes to communicating with the public.
The school board’s refusal to say how much it expects to pay soon-to-be ex-Superintendent Kyle Hayden in his new role as chief operations officer is the latest example of a communications failure.
The stonewalling by the board is at least the third time in five months that the district has sought to keep basic information from the public. The first involved a controversy over allegations that a South Middle School teacher made racist comments to his class. The board attempted to accept the teacher’s resignation without publicly naming him, then sought to hide the fact that it had signed a settlement agreement with the teacher.
Then, during the board’s process to appoint someone to fill a vacancy on the board, the board initially refused to release the names of applicants beforehand. That changed after the Journal-World objected to the process, but the board still wrongly withheld the applications for the position. You also may remember the board originally wasn’t going to interview the applicants in person, until the Journal-World reported that fact and a public outcry ensued.
The latest incident with Hayden and the COO position is particularly galling to anyone who supports good government.
Hayden, after less than a year on the job, no longer wants to be superintendent. So at its meeting tonight, the school board is poised to give him the new title and position of chief operating officer.
Such a move creates questions, not the least of which is “how much will Hayden earn in this new position?” When asked, school board president Marcel Harmon said there were no plans to release the contract — which includes the salary information — prior to the board’s vote at its 5:30 p.m. meeting today.
In other words, the salary information can become public after it is already decided.
Harmon’s rationale for not releasing the information is concerning. He said releasing such information before a vote could create a precedent that would result in “bogging things down.”
“If the community needed to have systemic input on every hire, including overviews of contracts/salaries, even just administrative hires, that would bog the system down,” Harmon said via email.
Unfortunately, such a comment speaks volumes about the school district’s commitment to transparency. Public comment doesn’t bog the process down. It is the point of the process.
State law requires that boards of education approve employee contracts in an open meeting for a reason. In the vast majority of cases, the public will have no desire to see the details of a contract. But in those instances that a member of a public does want to see such details, that information should be readily available.
School district leaders need to learn from their past mistakes. Provide the salary information, release the contract, and make a commitment to the principles of open government.