The Anchorage School Board apparently violated the Alaska Open Meetings Act in October when it decided in secret to not renew the contract of Superintendent Ed Graff and extend it a few months to finish the school year.
Now the board's opaque process has backfired. Board members who had reasonable concerns about Graff have kept silent for three months, creating suspicion and confusion among parents. Facing mounting political damage, they are struggling to free themselves from the secrecy they created.
The board met six times in executive session to discuss Graff's evaluation and contract renewal from August through October. Board member Eric Croft, who is running for Anchorage Assembly, said the board wanted a unanimous decision.
"It was a lot of give and take in executive session, but when we came out of the room we wanted to present a united front," he said. "So it was, in various stages, not unanimous, but then it became (unanimous)."
On Oct. 30, eight days after the board's last executive session, President Kameron Perez-Verdia announced the board's decision not to renew Graff's contract. His comments were vague and positive toward Graff. The board has remained silent since.
In Alaska, public bodies can meet privately for certain purposes, including to discuss employee issues that could affect a person's reputation, said attorney John McKay, Alaska's foremost authority on the open meetings law. They can also meet in public on employee issues, if they choose. Once they decide to hold an executive session, the employee can control whether the session takes place in private and if a recording is released.
With narrow exceptions, however, public bodies may not make decisions in executive session. The law says they should debate in public as much as possible and they must vote in public. That helps the public understand decisions and keeps elected officials accountable for their actions.
Board member Patrick Higgins said, "We basically decided as a group, we're not going to vote."
Higgins and Croft said the board took no action, since it didn't renew the contract. Also, Higgins said only the board president's signature was needed for the relatively low-cost contract extension. He said he assumed that action was proper because the board had extended contracts in the past without a vote.
"It sounds like the board took two actions in executive session," McKay said. "They decided not to renew the superintendent's contract, and they decided to extend his contract. And, from what you're saying, they wanted to take each action in a way that they could say it was not an action. If that's what happened, it would seem to be an attempt to avoid the spirit and letter of the law that says deliberations should be conducted openly and actions can't be taken in executive session."
The statute of limitations on the Open Meetings Act is 180 days. Enforcement requires a citizen to sue, and a court would void the action in question. A body can fix a violation by doing the action again in public.
By law, only the employee who was the subject of the executive session can release the recordings. Graff himself now holds the key to the board's cone of silence, and he hasn't offered to unlock it.
With the board beginning a search for a new superintendent, questions have steadily grown about the decision to fire Graff. Various theories have floated. Croft, up for election in April, has twice asked Graff to release the executive session recordings in emails over the last 10 days.
On Monday, Croft wrote an email to Graff with the subject line, "Permission to Speak Publicly about the Non-Renewal of your Contract and Whether you were Offered an Extension."
"Some people in our community are assuming facts that you and I know to be false," Croft wrote. "I would like to correct them, but do not feel that I can without your permission to waive some of your privacy rights. Please let me know as soon as possible your position on this matter. If I receive no written response, I will ask you on the record at the next Board meeting."
Graff declined to comment for this column.
The odd thing about the board getting tangled up in its own secrecy is that it probably didn't have to. Most of the issues I heard raised about Graff's work were about district policy and practices and would not damage his reputation. They could have been discussed publicly and generally have been. In any case, the board could have voted publicly.
Graff is well-liked and has a history as an effective administrator, both as a principal and as the right hand of former Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau. I've dealt with him in many roles and always found him fair, thoughtful and a good listener.
But he can be so reserved as to be unreadable — he would be an amazing poker player — and you can easily feel you didn't connect or know what he thinks. That's not good in a people-oriented position.
Under Graff's watch, the district ran into conflicts with West High parents over a new Career and Technical Education center there, which required a board-appointed committee to solve, said former West parent Blythe Marston.
Graff's administration also introduced a problematic new teacher evaluation system. In September, the district's principals, who use the system, told the board it lacked coherence and that implementation missteps threatened its integrity.
And Graff got into unnecessary conflict with the teachers union over work schedules and other issues, said Anchorage Education Association president Andy Holleman.
Board member Higgins said that Graff presented the results of a test called AIMSweb last summer in a way that hid the lack of advancement of low-achieving students. He said Graff's student expectations are too low.
None of these may be worth firing over. The district is huge and someone is always unhappy. But I understand the board's concerns. They wanted a superintendent who was more aggressive, better at engaging and inspiring people, and who they believed could lead the way to dramatic improvements in student achievement.
I probably would have given a talented local guy a chance to grow, but the board's position was legitimate.
However, the way the board took action was wrong. Secrecy and negotiated unity may have felt politically safer in their closed room, but now they are paying a high price in lost trust.
Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. A former member of the Anchorage Assembly, he has two children attending the Anchorage School District. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org
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