PHOENIX — Taxpayers cover the salaries of superintendents in Arizona’s public school districts, but in many cases it’s difficult to learn exactly what governing boards think of superintendents’ work, a Cronkite News Service review found.
Out of dozens of school districts approached with public records requests, officials in about a third said they were unable to provide documentation of their superintendents’ latest performance appraisals. The reason: Those reviews were delivered behind closed doors in executive session.
David Cuillier, a University of Arizona assistant journalism professor who specializes in freedom of information issues, called it “ludicrous” for governing boards to conduct superintendents’ performance appraisals in private.
“That absolutely violates all of the principles of government accountability to the public,” said Cuillier, who serves as the national chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee. “You should not be hiding superintendent evaluations in executive session.”
State law allows public bodies to meet in executive session when discussing legal advice, the sale or lease of property, labor negotiations and personnel matters including employment, assignment, appointment, promotion, demotion, dismissal, salaries, discipline or resignations.
Dan Barr, a media attorney who represented the East Valley Tribune in two successful lawsuits when Scottsdale refused to release a city manager’s self-evaluation and a former police officer’s performance reviews, said that appraisals for superintendents should be public record because they involve public officials.
“They try to circumvent public review of these evaluations by making them verbal and thus there are no records of them,” he said.
Cronkite News Service reporters and students in reporting classes at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication submitted public records requests to 104 public school districts, each with about 1,000 or more students. The goal: obtaining the superintendent’s salary and copies of his or her contract and latest performance appraisal.
While each district provided a salary and all but one provided a copy of its superintendent’s contract, officials with 34 districts said they were unable to provide documentation of a performance appraisal because it was delivered in executive session. Reporters received 54 written evaluations, and most of the remaining districts reported having new superintendents who had yet to be evaluated.
Katherine Bareiss, director of community relations for the Mesa Unified School District, which conducted its superintendent’s evaluation in executive session, said a private meeting provides for a more open discussion.
“It’s important that evaluations for any worker can be private so it can be honest and you can learn from any concerns there may be,” she said. “I’m not sure it’s possible that a productive and extensive evaluation can be conducted in a public setting.”
Chris Thomas, general counsel for the Arizona School Boards Association, said the public would be better served by having superintendents’ written evaluations exempt from the state’s Public Records Law, which already is the case with teachers’ evaluations. He said that would encourage board members to offer a more critical assessment of superintendents.
“It would give superintendents a chance to improve and a chance for boards to be honest about where improvements should be made,” Thomas said.
Of the evaluations Cronkite News Service received, most rated superintendents’ performance on scales of 1 through 5 or 1 through 10. They evaluated whether superintendents had achieved or made progress toward annual goals, exhibited high standards of ethics, promoted unity in districts and kept the board informed on important matters. Most of the evaluations included written comments as well.
In nearly all cases, superintendents received positive evaluations including high scores.
John Millikin, a clinical professor in management at ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business and a former vice president of human resources at Motorola, said written evaluations are usually more effective than oral but stressed that evaluation criteria are the most important part of an appraisal.
“A good performance-management process would be involved with good performance planning from the very beginning,” he said. “As far as the effectiveness of written versus oral evaluations, if indeed there are questions or interpretations of what an evaluation means, it is helpful to have it in written form. Written resolves disputes.”
Rob Ross, legal counsel for Tucson Unified School District, which conducted its superintendent’s performance appraisal verbally in executive session, said delivering the information in private allows for “brutally honest” discussion.
“They can be more direct than when they’re not concerned with how it will come off to the public,” he said.
After the evaluation session, he said, the governing board as part of a regular meeting discusses whether the superintendent has met annual goals.
“They air it out in the public,” Ross said. “They want their constituents to know how the superintendent is doing.”
Joyce Smith, a Tucson activist whose two sons went to school in the district, said she’d rather have everything discussed in the open because parents need to know what’s going on with the superintendent.
“It makes me wonder, are they doing as good of a job as they think they are?” Smith said.
The Safford Unified School District declined to provide a written evaluation of its superintendent on the grounds that it was delivered in executive session. Gail Curtis, the district’s superintendent secretary, said the governing board was following training provided by the Arizona School Boards Association.
“The training told us everything is confidential and that the evaluation is part of the confidential personnel file,” she said.
Thomas, however, said the school boards group teaches that written documents, even those produced in executive session, are public record.
Elizabeth Hill, Arizona’s assistant ombudsman for public records access, said that while the personnel section of Open Meetings Law may protect verbal evaluations and discussions from public inspection any written document from executive session constitutes a public record.
Don Nelson, superintendent of the Miami Unified School District, which didn’t provide an appraisal, said the district had no evaluation on file and that he didn’t know if he has ever been evaluated in his eight years there.
“If there is something they don’t like, they tell me,” he said. “I don’t need anything in writing so it doesn’t bother me that there isn’t.”
Follow Up Required
Some superintendents, including Nelson, objected to the format of the public records request, which followed a template provided by a 2002 Associated Press Managing Editors audit of public records access. The letter included a note to the government body reserving the right to sue under Arizona law if a government body doesn’t provide the records sought.
Nelson phoned a reporting student to complain about what he considered the letter’s threatening tone and then didn’t respond to calls until a Cronkite News Service reporter faxed a letter alerting him to her plans to make an in-person visit to request the documents and seeking an interview.
An e-mail from Candyce B. Pardee, who identified herself as an attorney for the Miami district, said Nelson thought the request was a class project from a “brash student” who needed to learn a lesson. The district had a copy of Nelson’s contract waiting when the reporter dropped by.
“If she wouldn’t have sent such a scathing letter, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it,” Nelson said later in a telephone interview. “All people have to do is come in, ask and they get what they want.”
Cuillier, the UA journalism professor, said his research suggests that school districts are more likely to comply with public records requests when presented with letters carrying a more threatening tone. Government officials are bound by Arizona’s Public Records Law regardless of whether they like the tone of the request, he noted.
“We shouldn’t have to threaten our own public employees with litigation in order to see what we’re entitled to see,” he said. “Something’s wrong with that.”
Some districts initially demanded that requesters go to their offices to review documents, which was impractical in many cases. Officials with the Agua Fria Union High School District, for example, cited a policy requiring that a reporter travel to Avondale to pick up the documents, sign for them and show photo identification.
After the reporter noted in writing that Arizona’s Open Records Law requires custodians to mail records upon request, Agua Fria mailed the information sought.
Hill, whose job with the Arizona Ombudsman Citizens’ Aide is making government more responsive to citizens seeking public records, said districts’ responses to public records requests vary because the level of knowledge is different in each.
“I think education becomes the key element here,” she said. “Some are getting it and some are not.”
The Ombudsman Citizens’ Aide public access program she runs offers optional training sessions, but Hill said making them a requirement for employees who work with public records would help officials become more familiar with their responsibilities and rights.
“They err on the side of secrecy instead of disclosure because they are afraid they will get into trouble,” Hill said. “They aren’t aware that it’s the law, so this sort of training could help them become more familiar.”