Mckenna Kohlenberg: Why transparency is needed in Madison’s superintendent hiring process, and how to do it

Mckenna Kohlenberg:

My concern stems from recent Board actions that I find concerning enough to warrant this stern message. As local press has noted (here too), the Board’s recent activities suggest a troublesome pattern of skirting, if not outright violating, open meetings and public records laws.

Wisconsin law requires school boards, like other local public bodies, to: a) hold their meetings publicly, hold them in reasonably accessible places, and open them to all citizens; b) have a quorum of members (usually a majority or more) before taking official actions; and c) precede each meeting with public notice, which includes to news outlets that have filed a written request for such notice.

There are narrow exemptions to the state’s open meetings laws. For example, if a school board is to vote on a motion related to considering an employee’s employment, they may be exempt and may move to convene in a closed session instead. Motions to convene in closed session can be adopted only if the body’s authority announces to those in attendance the nature of the business to be considered at such closed session (i.e. the reason the meeting should be exempt from the open meetings law); further, this information, in addition to the vote of each member of the body, must be recorded in the meeting’s records.

Two recent official actions by the Board leave me particularly wary. First, the hiring of an interim superintendent. Following Dr. Cheatham’s resignation announcement to the Board during a closed session meeting on May 6, the Board held five additional closed session meetings at which the hiring of her replacement was on the agenda.

Only after The Cap Times reported that the Board was seriously considering Nancy Hanks for the interim position did the Board hold two open “workshop” sessions, though no votes were officially taken during these sessions. And when local reporters submitted multiple open records requests related to the Board’s hiring process, including for its list of top choices and its list of all possible choices, MMSD legal counsel stated that no such records existed.

Further, in response to the reporters’ additional open records request for meeting minutes from five of the Board’s closed sessions spanning May 30 to June 17, the Board’s secretary stated that the minutes hadn’t been transcribed yet.

Second, and similarly unsettling, was the Board’s official action on July 22 — a vote — to fill the seat left vacant by Mary Burke with Savion Castro. The vote occurred during an open session workshop during which no public comment was permitted. The open session workshop immediately followed a closed session meeting (the posted agenda for the closed meeting stated its purpose was to address a teacher discipline matter).

I’ve heard local education experts, attorneys, and parents call the open workshop “choreographed” and “a performance.”

Did the Board really narrow the pool of applicants from 29 to 1 — unanimously — in a matter of 75 minutes? Or was the decision made ahead of time, during closed session meetings for which no records exist — or at least for which no records are publicly accessible, in violation of the closed session requirement that votes be kept as part of meeting records? Alternatively, and perhaps even more troublesome, was the decision the result of conversations tantamount to walking quorums?

So why hold open sessions at all? What purpose can they possibly serve you in making decisions, Board, if they’re not actually a forum for decision-making?

Related: Transparency, and Accountability, an Example: The MMSD Interim Superintendent Search Process by TJ Mertz.

Notes and links on the taxpayer supported Madison School Board’s Superintendent search expedition, and “what will be different, this time (2013)?”

Madison has long tolerated disastrous reading results, despite spending far more than most taxpayer supported K-12 school districts – between $18.5k and 20k per student, depending on the district documents reviewed.