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Sunshine needed for Washington County school decisions

Johnson City Press • May 26, 2018 at 12:00 AM

If Washington County Board of Education members Clarence Mabe and Mike Masters are correct, the majority of their peers on the board have drawn up an end-run around the public.

While he declined to name names, Mabe told Staff Writer Jessica Fuller on Thursday he was fairly certain a choice already had been made for the county school system’s interim leader in the wake of Director Kimber Halliburton’s resignation. Masters took it a step further, saying the school system’s principals were already in place for next year, as well.

After a beleaguered two years in the post, Halliburton announced Wednesday that she was packing her briefcase and heading south for presumably greener pastures in Mississippi. A coalition of her critics on the board were already talking about cordoning Halliburton off in a classroom position to fill out her contract. In a statement released after Halliburton resigned, Mabe said several board members had undermined the director from the beginning, causing her to leave.

Little of that wrangling happened in public meetings, and if indeed board members have decided on an interim director outside the public’s eye, such an action would meet neither the letter nor the spirit of Tennessee’s open meetings law.

A school board or any public governing body can act only a whole, and they must do so in open meetings. The Sunshine Law clearly states that making or deliberating toward a decision on any matter requires a public meeting. It goes on to say that chance meetings and electronic communications cannot be used to get around the law. This means board members should not be making decisions over lattes at Starbucks, in telephone chats or by email chains.

It would be naive, of course, to think that politicians aren’t making such deals behind the scenes before perfunctory votes in public. Blatant disregard for public discourse is all too common, though, and that’s because the law has no real consequences for violators beyond a do-over.

As if the public discussion concern were not enough, school board members may also need reminding that the board has only one employee: the director, who makes all other hiring decisions per state law. The board’s sole role with other personnel matters is in awarding and withdrawing tenure. Meddling in principal appointments would be beyond the scope of their duties.

We certainly hope that Mabe and Masters are wrong about the rumors of clandestine manipulations skirting the state’s laws on two fronts. The entire school board is set to meet 6 p.m. Wednesday in called session to act on Halliburton’s resignation and appoint an interim director.

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