We now teach our children “when you see something, say something.” We also encourage those who were victims of horrible crimes in the past to come forward so that predators can stopped before they hurt others — the #MeToo movement and the NY Child Victims Act both come to mind. This is an unfortunate, but necessary, reality of our time.
Over the past several years, we’ve observed a trend with our school boards and administrations — school board members hiding behind the district’s communications office, which is under the direction of the superintendent. This office funnels news through the district’s website, social media and news organizations to provide us with information that allows busy parents to see what’s happening in our children’s school. It has, however, also worked as a shield for the superintendent, administration and school board against the press.
Our newspaper still serves as a watchdog and sounding board for our community. We ask the questions to which our readers expect answers. Our readers are parents, taxpayers and voters. Each has a vested interest in the health of our schools and the effectiveness of those who work there. We can, and should, have access to our public schools. The Board of Education, as an independently elected body, should answer its own questions.
This week, school district residents perform the fundamental act of voting on an annual budget, but also decide who sits on the school board. These are individuals who represent us. They must be the pillars of our community.
Taking a seat on the Board of Education means assuming the mantle as our champion, a steward for the quality of our children’s education and also for their safety. The district’s administration is the responsibility of, and answers to, the board. Not the other way around. Each member acts as an independent advocate for our students and for us. That responsibility should weigh heavily upon member’s shoulders and each one must have enough strength to stand up against inadequate policies and ineffective administrations.
Unfortunately, we don’t see that happening.
Too often when we ask our questions to the Board of Education they punt the question to the district’s public relations officer. In the case of Bethlehem Central, the phone number to the Board of Education is listed as the communications office. It may have been an innocent oversight but this structure alone embodies an amalgamation of two entities that must be separate. They are, however, not.
On April 1, an autistic student was abandoned in the cold while on Bethlehem Central’s watch. This is a parent’s worst nightmare. Parents entrust our schools to keep their kids safe. Educate them, yes, but it’s assumed that is done within the confines of the safest environment our tax money can provide. It didn’t happen. It is apparent that one of the individuals involved with the incident, Stephanie Corbett, is no longer an employee. Good. However, that information was not freely provided. In fact, the circumstances leading to her separation from the district leaves her protected behind a policy that keeps the district from discussing it.
The school does not publicly comment on personnel matters. In moments of controversy surrounding its employees, the superintendent, its staff and its communications office will not speak. Maybe a statement will be provided — one that is controlled, one-sided and prepared without facing inquiry; one, most likely, devised with guidance from the school district’s attorney. Such a statement was provided by Superintendent Jody Monroe after the April 1 incident. It was a promise that protocols would be improved.
We learned that the April 1 incident was not necessarily the catalyst behind Corbett’s termination, that there was an additional alleged act of misconduct. We asked for a copy of her termination agreement, but found there was none prepared. Because the employee “resigned for purposes of retirement,” no reasons needed to be documented. Very clean and neat.
We approached the president of the Board of Education and asked him if he was aware of the circumstances surrounding Corbett and her resignation. We received a quick response back from its president, Michael Cooper. “It is the policy of the board and of the district that personnel matters are dealt with in Executive Session,” he stated in an email. “This is to ensure not only the privacy of the staff member involved but also to protect the integrity of the investigation.”
Ok, but what investigation?
Based on our conversation with the district’s communication office, there is no current investigation. If there was an investigation, we’re entitled to learn the results. We asked that question. The board did not answer. The district said they would revisit their protocols and strengthen communication avenues with employers within the school-to-work program. Was the board satisfied with that determination? We asked that question. The board did not answer.
New York State Open Meeting Law defines the process of executive sessions. There needs to be a specific reason as to why you are closing the door on your public to speak about matters. Information relating to current or future investigations or prosecution of a criminal offense that would imperil effective law enforcement if disclosed is one such reason.
There is no current criminal investigation, and speaking with Bethlehem Police, law enforcement was not involved. We are also unaware of any litigation pending in this case.
Every attorney makes decisions based on the best interests of their clients, but potential future victims have no representation. This policy of not commenting on personnel issues is not based upon law. It’s a provision devised from a fear of litigation — don’t speak as you’ll only make it easier for a potential plaintiff’s lawyer – but, in our opinion the district and the School Board must acknowledge the problem, execute a solution and ensure it doesn’t happen again should the employee move on to another district.
For generations, the Catholic Church has followed a similar confidentiality policy in regards to “personnel issues.” The weight from that kind of misjudgment has brought the Church to its knees. Only now is Rome starting to wake up to that mistake.
Bethlehem Central is failing to meet its obligation to the public. Worse, its Board of Education has aligned itself as a pseudo department of the district it is supposed to scrutinize and hold accountable. This is a situation in which the Board should be as passionate about what had happened to one of our students as the public is, and it should be demanding answers as the stewards we voted into office.
Otherwise, you’ve failed us.
Links to the Stories: