In many ways the current school board was elected in the wake of the Nancy Peterson scandal of 2014. Four of the five board members were elected or, in the case of Alan Fernandes, appointed to the board in 2014 – and even Bob Poppenga, who was elected in 2016, was on the ballot back in 2014.
There were many lessons out of that scandal, from issues of conflict of interest to issues of transparency. But a point that Bob Poppenga made in October of 2014 was critical: “One priority of the new School Board should be to find ways to regain community trust; this will take time and effort.”
In the three years since, we have spent much of our time with the highly divisive issue of AIM. It is quite clear that neither the school board nor the community sees eye to eye on this polarizing issue. That should make it all the more incumbent on those holding the numerical advantage on this issue to move, as former Superintendent Winfred Roberson used to say, “at the speed of trust.”
But really, from the start of this renewed controversy early in the term of the new board members in the spring of 2015, it has never felt like a slow and deliberate process. Worse yet, it has never felt like an open and transparent process either.
This point is really punctuated by the latest incident.
Last week, the Vanguard reported on the effective elimination of the fourth grade self-contained AIM classroom from Willet. There is a lot of contention over the issue of AIM, but really my chief concern here is a process question.
The biggest problem we face here is that no one seems to be getting or giving a straight answer. Not to the parents. Not to the school board. And certainly not to me as a member of the media.
In response to my inquiry with the District, District PIO Maria Clayton cited this 4-1 vote from April 6: “For the 2017-18 school year, and each year thereafter, when the number of children identified for the AIM program does not equal a full classroom, the remaining seats may be filled in accordance with the program’s design.”
A key question that would seem to be a public one is what does it mean “in accordance with the program’s design”? After all, the program is designed to serve high achieving and gifted students who qualify in the 98th percentile.
Yet, from what I could tell talking with parents in that program, the principal seems to have filled the fourth grade self-contained AIM classroom like she would any other classroom in her school. Indeed, that is the answer the parents got from the principal, that her instructions were to fill it like any other classroom.
Again, that seems like a policy question and yet, when I asked Ms. Clayton for an explanation, I got confidentiality citations. She said, “Assuming this is a media inquiry, it is important to know that AIM-identification information is confidential student information.”
Again, I was not asking for confidential information, I was asking for process information – when I pushed this point, I was provided with this answer: “The District has acted in accordance with Board direction.”
But I don’t believe that is actually true. Based on my understanding, the district did not fill the classroom “in accordance with the program’s design” – if they had, they would have perhaps added students who were right at the cutoff line for the program rather than simply ten students from the neighborhood school.
The issue here, however, is less to do with policy and more to do with transparency. It seems none of the parents became aware of this issue until they attended the paper chases. They were not given information from the school district.
The district has refused to answer questions from the parents and is lacking transparency in how and why this has been handled.
Finally the district is extremely unwilling to answer media questions. On Monday, after talking with the parent and a school board member, I sent an email to the district. I got an automatic response from Maria Clayton that she was out of the office until Tuesday. Fine.
I then sent the same email to Superintendent John Bowes – nothing. But I never hear from him. This is not the first time I have had my inquiries completely ignored by Superintendent Bowes.
Finally, on Wednesday, when I hadn’t heard back from Ms. Clayton, I emailed her again, and this time she responded.
But her response was that this was student information and “we cannot share that information with a non-parent/guardian.”
But I wasn’t seeking student information, I was seeking information about how the decision was made to place the students in that classroom. They never really answered the question other than the assertion by Ms. Clayton in very legal language that the AIM classroom has been “filled in accordance with the program’s design.”
There is no legal reason that the district could not share an explanation for the process for selecting those ten students – the policy, rather than specific information about the students.
The district is not being transparent. The district is not acting to gain trust from parents and the community – in fact, just the opposite. And what is worse is that the district seems to be actually getting worse in this respect, rather than better.
We get it – the issue of AIM is controversial. The parents whose kids are in the program are upset about the handling of the program as a whole. But that means the district needs to take extra steps to make sure everything they do is as open and transparent as possible – and, right now, I don’t feel like that’s the case.
—David M. Greenwald reporting