Sunday Morning Meditation – Infinite Wisdom
The Decatur School Board won’t reveal the name of an investigator who’s looking into an embarrassing situation for City Schools of Decatur.
Board members also won’t say if the investigator is being paid.
Susan Riley, a beloved media clerk at Decatur High, remains in limbo. Superintendent David Dude recently fired her, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. A few days later, he thought better of it and placed her on paid leave. He said he changed his mind because he received new information that cast doubt on the allegations that led to Riley’s termination. Riley’s firing royally ticked off many people in the community, which was almost certainly a factor in Dude’s change of heart. Riley’s supporters maintain she was somehow set up by her coworkers and that the allegations are either untrue or trumped up.
In pursuit of the truth, Dude has brought in this mystery investigator who will examine Riley’s case. Dude told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that he may have been lied to or misled about Riley’s actions.
I’m a little skeptical about how Dude, a person paid nearly $200,000 a year to run a school system that has a little over 4,600 students and one High School, could be misled about anything. The superintendent’s job is not to be led by others. It’s to lead them. The buck stops with him.
It’d be interesting to know if the mystery investigator will examine how Dude handled this matter. Or will the investigator’s inquiries only be directed at employees who can be thrown under a school bus at the first opportunity?
Actually, it’d be interesting to know who in the hell this mystery investigator is anyway.
But the School Board, in its infinite wisdom, has decided it is better not to tell us.
Because they’ve also decided they won’t disclose whether the taxpayers are paying this person, that means we don’t yet know what’s being spent on this investigation. The School Board has declined to cite any exemption in state law that gives them the ability to withhold this information. Board members believe the state’s sunshine laws give them cart blanche to do as they please regarding personnel matters. I think that is a narrow interpretation of the law, but it’s not a surprising one given the board’s penchant for unnecessary secrecy.
Board members claim answering simple questions about the investigation will somehow tarnish the investigation’s integrity. School Board Chair Annie Caiola told me that if the board revealed the name of the investigator, people might try to contact that person and unnecessarily “prolong” the inquiry.
As a reporter, that’s just funny to me. I typically welcome people calling me when I conduct an investigation. They might have useful information that will lead me to the truth. Because the only thing that matters is the truth, whether it’s in my reporting or the school system’s review of this shameful episode. The School Board’s insistence that this investigation needs to be done quickly and secretly makes me wonder whether the truth is CSD’s true objective here.
There could be plenty of things about Riley’s case the School Board doesn’t want seeing the light of day. The review of Riley’s case could very well shed light on some fundamental problems within CSD’s central office.
Even before the Riley’s firing and Dude’s hiring, there were well-known personnel controversies within CSD. Teachers at the High School had a beef with former principal Noel Maloof, a man who last year was promoted to CSD’s Chief Operating Officer by Dude’s predecessor, Phyllis Edwards, on her way out the door. I attempted to learn more about what the actual grievances against Maloof were, but the school system shielded itself from scrutiny by hiding in its bunker of conveniently-interpreted exceptions to the state’s Open Records Act. Our requests to read the grievances were flatly denied. The board’s attorneys said these records were exempt because they are considered performance evaluation records.
City Schools of Decatur and its School Board also had convenient excuses for not releasing a sales contract for property it intends to purchase along Talley Street. The sales contract can’t be released, they said, because the sale hasn’t been completed and somehow releasing this information would ruin the deal.
Note the pattern here. CSD’s well-paid attorneys always interpret the exemptions in the state’s open records laws in a way that will provide for the maximum amount of secrecy surrounding any issue. Whenever the School Board wants to hide information from the public, it essentially says, “We can’t do that because bad things will happen, but trust us. It’s for the best.”
Residents trusted the School Board when they hired Dude. Less than six months into his time here he’s potentially exposed the school system to a lawsuit over his handling of the Riley case.
Sometimes I wonder if City Schools of Decatur officials think they work for the Department of Homeland Security or the CIA. What is the real harm in disclosing who this investigator is and if they’re being paid? We’re not dealing with top-secret nuclear codes here. In fact, the superintendent already has publicly discussed this supposedly private personnel matter via Decatur’s notorious email listservs.
In an email to local attorney Tom Stubbs, he wrote, “You again mention being aware of something that you most certainly are not fully informed of. I wish we could all have an open and honest discussion about the situation, and am confident you would come to the same end result as I did, but unfortunately that is not possible. It’s unfortunate that I’ve had to make such a decision so early in my time here, but we must play the hands we’re dealt. I could have made the easy decision, but I instead made the right decision. I believe that even in my short time here I have shown that I am a person of honesty and integrity. You and others will judge me as you see fit, based on the incomplete information available to you, and I accept that, as imperfect as it is.”
Look, if it’s that top secret, why is the superintendent discussing the issue in public at all, much less via email exchanges read by hundreds of people?
Unless the person they’ve hired to do this investigation is James Bond, the need for all this secrecy about this case is just bonkers. It’ll be common knowledge in short order who the investigator is. If there’s one thing the Susan Riley debacle proved, it’s that secrets in Decatur seldom stay secret for long.
Other transparency advocates I spoke with encouraged the School Board to dispense with this silliness about not naming the investigator or discussing whether this is costing the taxpayers money.
Matt Duffy, with the Society of Professional Journalists of Georgia’s Freedom of Expression Committee, said, “The SPJ wonders why the Decatur School Board would not want to release more information about this issue. They are certainly violating the spirit of openness and transparency that we expect from our local elected officials.”
Full disclosure: I serve on the SPJ’s board of directors.
Jim Zachary, director of the Transparency Project of Georgia, said, “If the Board of Education hired an independent contractor to conduct an investigation, then it should have a contractual agreement with the contractor. The contract is a public record and should be made available in the exactly the same way any public record is provided to a requestor.”
I’ve requested a copy of the investigator’s engagement letter and/or contract, but something tells me the School Board’s attorneys are going to claim CSD doesn’t have to release that information either. The School Board has demonstrated it will firmly adhere to the letter of the law, particularly when it suits them.
But doing what’s legal is really the least you can do. As a wise person recently said, doing what’s legal is a “minimal requirement.” Leaders shouldn’t just strive to do the bare minimum that’s required of them. They should strive to do what’s right.
That wise person was Board Chair Annie Caiola, by the way. She was speaking to Riley’s supporters and CSD staff members at a School Board meeting. She said, “We are not only committed to doing what is legal, as we know that’s a minimal requirement, but the board and [Superintendent David] Dude is committed to doing what is right, by all of its staff members, including Ms. Riley.”
I hope Caiola and her fellow board members will consider doing what is right by the public by providing some very basic information about this investigation.