First published in the New Haven Independent.
A consultant advised New Haven’s Board of Education not to put any part of the schools superintendent’s upcoming performance review on paper, other than a single summary sheet at the end.
Otherwise, he warned, the public would find out what’s really in it, through a public-records request.
President Darnell Goldson didn’t agree with that advice. He said he’s considering a move in the other direction entirely, holding the superintendent’s entire evaluation in public.
Superintendent Carol Birks, meanwhile, said she’s undecided on whether she wants an audience to sit in on her review.
That issue — of the public’s right to know whether Birks is actually doing the job she’s being paid $235,000 a year to do — came up at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting in the Celentano School cafeteria, as the four board members present unanimously adopted a new rating system.
Under state law, boards of education must evaluate their superintendents annually. During that process, they have a chance to give feedback about how the superintendent’s work stacks up against the district’s goals.
According to the rubric passed on Monday night, Birks will be assessed on seven different criteria: “visionary leadership,” “instructional leadership,” “talent development and labor relations,” “culture and climate,” “operational and fiscal improvements,” “family and community engagement,” and “leadership in collaborative governance.”
State Hush-Hush Trend
Whether her grades in those areas will eventually become public still isn’t clear.
In Connecticut, almost all teacher evaluations are private. That’s because lawmakers don’t want principals to be deluged with calls from parents asking for their child to be reassigned to a different teacher, said Kathleen Ross, a staff attorney at the state’s Freedom of Information Commission.
State legislators did include one exception to the law, however, saying the superintendent is the only school employee whose evaluation must be disclosed when a member of the public requests it.
School boards across Connecticut have tried to skirt that provision by evaluating the superintendent behind closed doors without leaving any written record behind.
In 2016, after surveying 133 school districts, the Hartford Courant’s Jordan Otero Sisson found that roughly one-third of school boards give only verbal feedback in executive session.
“If there’s no record, then there’s nothing we can order them to disclose,” Ross said.
For years, New Haven’s Board of Education used the same move to block access to these evaluations. Back in 1986, three reporters from the New Haven Register’s parent company filed an appeal to the Freedom of Information Commission. They were trying to get a copy of then-Superintendent John Dow’s evaluation. The school board said that it had no records to produce.
The Freedom of Information Commission ordered board members and school staff to file affidavits attesting that they hadn’t written anything down. But without a legal basis to do much more, the commission ripped into the board in a scathing ruling, criticizing the “ill-conceived efforts to evade their responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act and to abrogate their duties as public officials.”
“The board has acted irresponsibly by eliminating a written performance evaluation record of such a high level public official merely to avoid public oversight,” the commission’s decision read. “In this case, the board, in effect, has left itself powerless to take any disciplinary action concerning the superintendent’s performance as provided by contract.
“Moreover,” the decision continued, “the Commission believes that the respondents’ fear of the public’s reaction to the evaluation process insults the intelligence of the citizens of New Haven and has no place in a representative democracy.”
Former Mayor John DeStefano also began making his own management evaluations public after losing an FOIC challenge. In 2010, his evaluations included one of then-Superintendent Reggie Mayo, which was made public.
New Haven Was Transparent — Once
In 2015, the last time that New Haven’s school board graded its superintendent, the district released a comprehensive evaluation, with both Garth Harries’s written self-assessment and the Board of Ed’s written feedback.
Four years later, the process might go differently, depending on whether they take advice from a consultant at the CT Center for School Change. Mayor Toni Harp tapped the consultant, former Farmington Superintendent Robert Villanova, for help in designing the evaluation tool.
His presentation on Monday included a suggested timeline that showed the superintendent sharing only a verbal self-assessment in a July executive session, possibly backed up with documentation. Then, the board should share its evaluation in a September executive session, either as a “written or verbal” draft.
Villanova said that the only document that makes it into the superintendent’s personnel file would be a summary.
“Any written comments on this form are FOI-able, so typically boards of education use this form as a reference sheet without filling it out,” he said. “They’d only fill it out in summary end at the end. That would be your choice.”
Villanova added that some document should go into the personnel file to help track the superintendent’s progress toward district goals.
“That allows history to be in place,” he said. “Boards turn over; conditions change. It’s important to have a record of the performance of the superintendent over the years.”
After that, Goldson asked if the Board of Ed could take the superintendent’s evaluation public instead.
That’s up to the board’s discretion, Villanova said.
“Some boards do that public session so the community sees the goals that the board and the superintendent are agreeing to,” he said. “But because it’s part of the evaluation, it’s your prerogative, and you could have your attorney review that. I’ve seen it done both ways.”
There is one catch, though: Birks can legally demand an open discussion.
That doesn’t typically happen, Ross said.
“The superintendent probably doesn’t mind having the performance evaluation done in executive session,” she said. “Usually, that happens when a board plans to fire an employee in secret.”
Board member Joseph Rodrigez also asked how other boards normally gather “input from other stakeholders beyond this body,” like parents and teachers, before filling out their evaluations.
Maybe that could happen at an open forum, Goldson proposed.Villanova said that the performance evaluation is a process that the board usually completes alone.
“As elected officials, I expect that you meet with people all day and all year long. Part of your judgment of the superintendent’s performance, based on these criteria, is going to incorporate community input that you’ve heard,” he said. “That kind of community input that elected officials get automatically is different than having a formal meeting where the superintendent’s evaluation is the focus. That seems to be out of bounds of your contract.”
After the meeting, Birks said she was unsure how she’d like her evaluation to be handled. “I would want to consult my attorney, because [a public evaluation] wasn’t the agreement originally,” she said. “I’m not sure.”
Goldson said he’d be looking over the agreement too. “I’d rather it be public, to tell you the truth,” he said. “But I need to look at the contract to see what we can and can’t do.”