When a new superintendent took over the Morgan School District July 1, 2013, he had a community to calm after a failed voted leeway, a new principal to hire and bus routes to figure out. And the weekly “Superintendent’s Corner” column that had run for decades in the newspaper ended.
The absence of administrators writing regularly for the weekly newspaper was no accident, Superintendent Doug Jacobs said.
“I am not working without a strategy,” Jacobs said at the April 8 school board meeting. “I felt there was too much information out there, too many weekly articles. I pulled us back.”
He said rather than garnering the media attention “you get from fighting things publicly,” he decided to instead establish an open-door policy that invites county residents to air concerns privately.
“The strategy has been successful,” Jacobs said.
Some school board members questioned that success.
Board member Mark Farmer said there has been public demand that the school board be more transparent.
“We need to try to be as transparent as we can, to make sure we understand, hear and address the community’s concerns,” Farmer said.
In the wake of demand for a parental opt-out form relating to end-of-level core testing, Board member Jody Hipwell agreed. She said the school district did not put opt-out forms on its website “because it is something we don’t support and endorse.”
“We are getting nailed. We need to stand up for ourselves and start defending ourselves against a lot of crap going around. We need to start putting information on the website, update that more, and in the newspaper,” Hipwell said. “They are being very vocal, that group. They are being very loud. People are listening to them. It is almost like we are putting our head in the sand and ignoring them.”
“Where there is misinformation, we need to be proactive in correcting them,” Farmer said.
“Maybe we need to be more proactive,” Board Chairman Bruce Galbraith said.
Business Administrator D’Lynn Poll said she regularly handles misinformation about donations to schools and the Morgan Education Foundation. According to IRS regulations that the foundation adheres to, donators cannot mandate exactly where there money is spent. They can steer their money into certain programs such as technology and classroom grants, “but they cannot dictate with exactness.”
Such rules are meant to prohibit parents from getting a tax deduction for donating money directly to scholarships for their own children, Galbraith said. “That is taboo,” he said.
“They are asking for transparency and accountability,” Farmer said. “They want to know where it went, not say where it can go. That is a fair request.”
Poll said that information is public since the Morgan Education Foundation is a public foundation for a public school district.
“Just come in and ask,” she said.
The public interest in how the school district spends its money was an impetus for forming the growth advisory committee. Since Jacobs took over last year, other committees have been formed to handle finance, transportation, technology, district policies and curriculum and instruction.
The Finance Committee includes Farmer, Hipwell, Jacobs and Poll and operates as a “special purpose board committee” organized to focus on district financial matters in an effort to “streamline the discussion in board meetings,” Jacobs told The Morgan County News in February.
Agendas of special purpose committees are not published in the newspaper and proceedings are not recorded for the public record.
“Transparency is very good and I have wondered how much information to put out there,” Jacobs said. “I want to put up my dukes sometimes and fight. But I don’t think that wins in the end.”