Monday, May 18, 2009

Board of Education making crucial decisions

I'm always interested in what is happening at the State Office of Education. It seems that they've been making headlines more frequently in the last month. From hiring a new Superintendent to firing their two internal auditors to changing Board Rule concerning their auditing process. A few questions have come to my mind as I watch the changes that the State Board members are making or considering.

Crucial Decision #1 - Hiring a new Superintendent

With the announcement by Superintendent Patti Harrington that she would be retiring, a Selection Committee made up of board members was formed, chaired by board member Denis Morrill. There were a few details made public in a Deseret News Article mid-April. I emailed Denis Morril and board secretary Twila Affleck for some details on what the Deseret News article called "committee interviews". I was hoping for some information about the committees but failed to receive a response. However, it was rumored that some high-profile people were seen at a downtown hotel, consistent with selection committees formed in other scenarios. Legislators such as Howard Stephenson, Deputy of Education Christine Kearl, Chief Justice Christine Durham and PTA Education Commissioner Holly Langton were among some of the people seen on Wednesday, May 13. Whether they were there for committee interviews is just a good guess, but most likely that's the case. Why the committee makeup is being kept from the public is a question for the Selection Committee. When it comes down to it, I'm just happy that the board is getting outside input and I think that's a good move, although they are more than likely just helping to whittle down the selection and not necessarily weighing in on the final decision. We should be hearing who they narrowed it down to as early as today. The final decision will be made by the Board Selection Committee on Friday, May 29. Hopefully we'll be hearing an announcement soon thereafter, but the paper reports that we'll know on June 5.

Crucial Decision #2 - Firing internal auditors

During the last board meeting on May 1 the board got into a lengthy discussion about the changes they were considering for the internal auditing process. Current board rule has the internal auditors reporting directly to the board. That's the way it should be, but we'll get to that in a moment. The board was reminded that this was just a discussion of possible changes. They scheduled more discussion for the June board meeting. That being said, it was a complete surprise that the board immediately thereafter (behind closed doors in an executive session) voted to fire the two internal auditors, Kent Mohlman and Tim Salazar. The now former internal auditors say they were equally surprised and have cited various reasons as to why they believe they were let go. Tim Salazar was the first to admit that he knew he worked at the pleasure of the board and could be let go at any time. But he also believes that it was a recent School Community Council audit that Superintendent Harrington disagreed with that led her to convince the board to let them go. Superintendent Harrington defended her actions, so at this point there is a bit of he-said-she-said going on. We can only speculate, but one thing is certain - the timing! What led them to take action so quickly before even solidifying the proposed changes to the internal auditing procedure? Which leads us to crucial decision #3.

Crucial Decision #3 - Changing Internal Audit Board Rule (R277-116)

Since the board is debating changes to their internal auditing process, the question remains, what changes are they considering and are they good or bad? Let's break down the proposed changes found in a draft of board rule R277-116. If they make the changes that have been proposed thus far, the following might be true:

  • There would no longer be a board-controlled review process that is independent. The auditors reported directly to the board, which allowed them to speak openly and not be afraid. This must continue to be the case if the auditing process is to work.

  • The state board would be giving up authority. It would not be prudent for an elected body to give away their authority to independently review and monitor the people they hire to do the day to day work.

  • A Tribune article said that the board was having a hard time overseeing the audit group, but auditor Tim Salazar reported that there weren't a lot of efforts made by the board to be aware of what the auditors were doing. Changing control to the Superintendent won't help the board know the auditors any better and would make honest reporting without fear of retribution even more difficult.

  • The paper stated that the state board felt they were not capable of effectively managing the audit group. But if they, as a part time board, cannot manage the audit group, how can they effectively manage the Superintendent, who has enormous responsibilities in comparison to the auditors? Also, wouldn't the audit group, if used effectively, help the state board manage the superintendent?
These are just a few concerns that should be considered as the State Board of Education moves forward with their discussion, and eventual decision, in the coming months. There are people that are concerned that the state board is being manipulated by the Superintendent, and that the Superintendent, or other staff, are taking responsibilities that should rest with the elected board. We'll be keeping an eye on things, but hopefully they'll come to the right decisions on their own.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Secrecy in choosing vacant School Board replacement is bad. Hypocrisy is worse.

I surprised myself last month. Upon hearing the news that former Tooele District Superintendent Michael Johnsen was chosen as outgoing State School Board member Richard Moss' replacement, I was thrilled that the Governor actually made a good decision. Not just a good decision, a great decision! However, my elation blinded me to the fact that there was not a shred of transparency in the process. Had the person been someone that I felt was not good for public education you would have been reading this post a month ago when the selection was made! Shame on me for being a hypocrite. Unfortunately, I'm not the only hypocrite.

There is already a problem with how the State School Board is elected in Utah. I've written at length about the process, but to quickly summarize, a committee is appointed from within the Governor's office. They interview candidates and narrow them down to three from within each district. They recommend three candidates to the Governor who likewise narrows the field down to two whose names are then placed on the ballot where the people decide who will be elected. This process needs to be changed and attempts were recently made in the last legislative session but were blocked in the Senate Education Committee.

The current vacancy came when Board Member Richard Moss moved to Arizona in mid-March. A couple of weeks later, Governor Huntsman decided that Michael Johnsen would be the best man for the job. I agree! But the Governor didn't get advice from the Legislators as he should have. The Legislators will need to approve the newly appointed board member, which will likely happen later this month, but Richard Moss has called for them to block the Governor's pick on grounds that it wasn't a fair and open process. He makes an excellent point!

20A-1-507. Midterm vacancies in the State Board of Education.

(1) If a vacancy occurs on the State Board of Education for any reason other than the expiration of a member's term, the governor, with the consent of the Senate, shall fill the vacancy by appointment of a qualified member to serve out the unexpired term.

(2) The lieutenant governor shall issue a certificate of appointment to the appointed member and certify the appointment to the board.

The biggest hypocrites in all of this is Senate leadership, specifically Senator Howard Stephenson. He was quoted by the Salt Lake Tribune as saying, "We've heard a lot about transparency in government and the need to choose representatives of the people in an open process," he said, "and this didn't appear to be open." Stephenson said that the Governor should consider withdrawing Johnsen's selection.

Senator Stephenson is the man who, as President of the Utah Taxpayers Association, bragged that they were able to "beat back a challenge to the committee which recruits and nominates candidates for the state school board". Since I just wrote about his conflicts of interest, I'll simply suggest that you read my recent post on the topic. It's really quite unbelievable that he, out of anyone, would have a valid opinion on the matter. Senator Waddoups chimed in, too, and we all know the problems he's been having; removing Senator Buttars from one committee position and assigning him to another.

I agree with the selection by Governor Huntsman. I hope that the Senate will confirm Michael Johnsen. If they don't give their consent and instead cry foul due to the lack of openness, then I expect them to do something about the flawed nomination process that doesn't allow the people to fairly elect those who represent them. I expect that anyway...I'm just sayin'.