PR firm advises JCPS board to keep quiet on student-assignment proposal
Let chairman do the talking, PR firm says
Some Members Uncomfortable "being muzzled"
Board could pay as much as $20k for bad advice
A Louisville public-relations firm recently hired by the Jefferson County Board of Education is advising board members to let the board chairman do all the talking on certain issues, including a controversial recent student-assignment proposal.
After The Courier-Journal revealed last week that the board had shelved a student-assignment plan that would have bused up to 38 percent fewer elementary students this fall for integration purposes, Dan Hartlage, a partner with Louisville-based Guthrie Mayes Public Relations, sent board members an email Thursday recommending they stop talking to the media about the proposal.
Last spring, the board chose not to discuss the proposal publicly, instead deciding to await recommendations from a national expert on school integration whom they had hired as a consultant. District officials initially refused to turn over the plan until several board members urged them to reconsider.
“We should … do what we can to allow this story to pass,” Hartlage wrote in an email to board members and district staff. “That said, should any of you receive media requests to further discuss this issue, I recommend that you decline. For all the reasons previously discussed, there is no productive reason to further discuss the issue in the media. If a media outlet pushes hard for an interview, I recommend that you suggest they talk to the board chair.”
The board hired Guthrie Mayes in July, one month after it hired Donna Hargens to replace outgoing Superintendent Sheldon Berman...
This advice comes on the heels of a Courier-Journal scathing rebuke of the board's ongoing resistance to full transparency in an Editorial last week.
Those who remain unconvinced that the Jefferson County Board of Education is a dysfunctional unit need only look at the latest example of the members' flailing and failing leadership.
Staff writer Antoinette Konz reported in last Thursday's Courier-Journal that a proposal to alter the district's student assignment plan, the one at the heart of so much volatile community debate and disagreement, was quietly set aside by school board members earlier this year and shielded from any sort of public discussion until other recommendations, still being awaited, arrive. Meanwhile, the new school year starts in one week.
The jury is out on how much the proposal, put together by former Superintendent Sheldon Berman and 20 other top-level administrators, might have reduced the number of students who needed to be bused to keep elementary schools integrated. The proposal said the reduction could have been up to 38 percent, while others dispute that.
Given the uproar over the student assignment plan's perceived shortcomings and the political hot potato its diversity goals have become among some voters, one would think the board would do whatever it could to keep the public informed, clued in and up-to-date on what is happening on this front — even if it's just a proposal and even if others are expected to be part of a more comprehensive discussion.
Not this board. They may talk transparency, but they walk a much different walk. Keeping this proposal from the public is just the most current reminder of that. Other examples:
The members perform part of the superintendent's evaluation out of the public eye; they even worked to change state law in order to ensure that lack of sunshine. After they fired Superintendent Sheldon Berman last fall with zero public discussion, their proceedings to replace him were secretive, the names of serious contenders weren't released, and they never really told the public what they were looking for in the way of his replacement.
When The Courier-Journal filed an open records request for the panel's proposal to amend the student assignment plan, the district initially refused to release it because the board had not yet taken action on it. A heavily redacted version of the plan, with all detail blacked out, was turned over to the newspaper. More recently three board members — chairman Stephen Imhoff, Linda Duncan and Debbie Wesslund — insisted the district release the unredacted proposal in the name of transparency. Hence, Ms. Konz' report on a plan that was forwarded to the school board in February.
Still, not all members were on board with Mr. Imhoff's, Ms. Duncan's and Ms. Wesslund's commitment to belated transparency. Member Carol Haddad distinguished herself, and not in a good way, when she said to Ms. Konz, “I didn't want all these ideas floating around — it confuses people.”
Actually, it confuses people when ideas are not floating around and when public servants do the business of the public out of the public eye, a concept that continues to elude this school board.
It also apparently eluded Superintendent Berman, who told Ms. Konz that he had planned to put the proposed plan on a board meeting agenda, but did not do so at the request of board members, who wanted to wait on other recommendations. He should have gone public with an issue that was — and is — the public's business.
No one was served with this secrecy.