The Hammond Board of School Trustees should be commended for announcing strategic planning committee meetings but more information still needed
October 24, 2018-In a recent reply to a complaint from the Gazette regarding the use of a consent agenda by the School City of Hammond Board of School Trustees, Board Attorney Monica Conrad explained that the law does not require “deliberation and forethought” before the Board enters into contracts. At the time, we agreed that there is no legal requirement for “deliberation and forethought” but suggested that voters might some day demand that the Board explain their actions. It appears that day has come.
After Board President Deborah White explained that the Board had created a “Strategic facilities planning committee” which would be looking at “cuts and consolidations” and would decide which schools were “in such a state of disrepair we can say it is not fixable . . .” (See the video Here), residents were outraged. In short, White dropped the bomb that the facility study may dictate that some schools be closed and that decision would be made by a committee that few even knew existed. Those who knew the committee existed did not know who was on the committee, what the committee’s mission would be, and what the goals of the committee were.
Consent Agenda-The Root of the Problem
According to Board Attorney Monica Conrad, the Board is not required to discuss contract items before approving them. The Board is not required to provide the public with copies of documents that they have reviewed and the Board is not required to explain what they are doing. While all of that may* be true, residents must demand more from their elected officials. If the strategic planning process is to be successful, the public must be informed about the existence of the committee, the process for selecting members and the goals of the committee. If this information is not shared with the public, the results of months and possibly years of work will be illegitimate in the eyes of residents. When tough decisions are made, residents will rightly proclaim who made these decisions and who gave them the right to make decisions on my behalf.
Some Get Transparency
Highland Clerk-Treasurer Michael Griffin is a shining beacon of transparency in the region. Elected officials throughout the region rely on Griffin’s expertise in a variety of areas. When an interlocal agreement was needed for the West Lake Corridor Project, Griffin’s expertise was tapped. When elected officials have questions about proper procedures, they often call Griffin who always answers the call. While I rarely agree with Griffin on political issues, I always respect the process by which he accomplishes his goals. On the Friday before a Town Council Meeting, Griffin sends a “board packet” to a mailing list which any interested party can receive. Similarly, the Town of Munster maintains an online forum where clerk-treasurer David Schafer uploads pertinent documents before meetings. (see https://www.munster.org/egov/apps/document/center.egov?view=browse&eGov_searchType=56&eGov_searchSubmit=Search )
The Board of School Trustees similarly maintains a system of uploading documents for Board members. These documents are not shared with the public, however. No information is provided prior to a meeting and residents who attend a meeting or watch the videos online only see a consent agenda with the bare minimum information. In a recent case, for which I have filed a public access complaint (see footnote below), the name of the company that got the contract wasn’t even correct. This is unacceptable and goes to the very core of representative government. How can you expect parents to be involved in the process of education when participation is discouraged at the highest levels?
Regardless of the results of the election on November 6, we hope that Hammond residents will demand more of their elected school board. We will continue to keep you apprised of the issues.
*The Gazette has asked the Public Access Counselor to declare that a contract entered into by this Board with “MTW, Inc.” on October 16, 2018 evidences that Board members engaged in talks outside a public meeting regarding the contract. While deliberation and forethought are not a violation of the public access laws, if Board members engage in discussions, electronically or otherwise, regarding the agenda items then a violation may have occurred.