Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Murky 'Shadow Board' Lurks in Charlottesville

Both Charlottesville TV stations had lengthy reports Tuesday night about a "closed door" meeting of City Councilors and School Board members, at which they discussed appointing an advisory body to help in the search for a new school superintendent (a job that taxed the competence of the School Board when they tried to do it a year ago, ending in the recent "resignation" of troubled Superintendent Scottie Griffin, Charlottesville's own thesaurus entry for "Peter Principle").

On WCAV-TV (Channel 19, the CBS affiliate with hundreds of viewers throughout the area) Michael Gorsegner reported:

Tonight, Charlottesville City council members met in a closed door meeting to try and iron out the details of an advisory committee aimed at finding a new superintendent of schools.

* * *

However, not all of the council members were present for the meeting. Councilor Rob Schilling says he opposes the committee because, "this commission would serve as a shadow board whose accountability relationships would be murky, which is not an improvement on our current situation."

This controversy comes at a time where two Charlottesville school board members have announced they will not seek reappointment to their post as well as the beginning of a petition to have school board members elected rather than appointed by the council.
Meanwhile, on WVIR-TV (Channel 29, the market's dominant broadcast news source), Joe Holden put Councilor Rob Schilling closer to the top of the story:
Councilor Rob Schilling was not present, saying the entire process is questionable and stayed away from the proceedings in protest. Rob Schilling says the commission "would only serve as a shadow board, whose accountability would be murky," because of an alleged lack of public input. He says this could further problems with an already embattled school board.

* * *

Missing from Tuesday night's gathering was councilor Rob Schilling who says he's not participating because the commission lacks public input. In an email Schilling wrote, "to introduce another indirect layer of accountability via council appointments is to repeat the problem we experience currently with our appointed school board: no distinct lines of accountability."

School board members have endured pointed criticism following the resignation of superintendent Scottie Griffin.

Mayor David Brown counters Schilling's claims saying the school advisory commission is modeled to include the public in every step.

But in an interview Monday, Schilling explains he wants to take public input a step further by having an elected school board. He stated, "Here you have a school board that's been hung out to dry in this process and taken a lot of criticism and I think if you had direct accountability to voters, you wouldn't be in this position right now."

Prior to Tuesday night's closed-door meeting, Schilling sent a letter outlining his views to members of City Council and of the School Board. Here is the text, in full:
Dear Councilors and School Board members,

I write to you today to alert you that I will not participate in tonight’s closed session City Council meeting—a meeting for the purpose of appointing membership to the Charlottesville Schools Advisory Commission.

Although I could support an advisory commission established to assist the School Board in their superintendent search, I cannot support the process by which this commission came forth, the proposed membership of the commission, or the lack of public involvement in decisions regarding the charge and membership of the commission.

It is my understanding that Mayor Brown and Mrs. Van Yahres jointly conceived of this board, and each later brought the idea to their respective government bodies. I, personally, heard nothing about this proposed Commission until about 11:00 AM on Monday, May 2. At that time, I received a telephone call from the Mayor, informing me that the School Board had put together a proposal, and that they would be holding a press conference at 1:30 PM that day to announce the idea. Mayor Brown stated to me that he would be present for the press conference, and that the purpose of the call was to let me know that event was taking place. Mayor Brown did not solicit my degree of support for the Commission at that time nor was I informed of the specific charge and composition of the Commission.

The topic of the Commission was again raised during our May 2 City Council meeting under “other business.” At that time, I requested a written copy of the proposal. I was told that one did not exist, but that I would receive a copy within the next few days. I also expressed concern that Commission member “categories” had already been established without citizen input. I called for a public process wherein members of the community could submit their names for consideration of inclusion on the Commission, as has been done in most, if not all other task forces and commissions I can recall appointing. I was told that this was not possible because there was a time factor involved and that we needed to appoint Commission members as soon as was practicable.

The next day, I received a press release from the City’s communications department, stating: “the Charlottesville School Board and the City Council are proposing the formation of the Charlottesville Schools Advisory Commission.” This was troubling because, while the press release implied unanimous consent, there had been no substantive group Council discussion regarding particulars of the Commission, no vote of council, and I had not even been asked my opinion of the concept. This press release was sent out to the media and to other interested parties on Monday, May 2, at approximately 2:30 PM, although I (and perhaps all of City Council) did not receive the release until Tuesday, May 3, at 11:10 AM. Upon inquiring about the propriety of such a release without any substantive discussion of the initiative by the entire council, I was told by the City Attorney’s office that the Mayor, through an ‘informal poll’ of council, had obtained “a consensus of council,” and therefore, the wording of the press release was appropriate, if not entirely accurate.

During the subsequent days, I received many questions and comments from concerned constituents regarding this Commission. One inquiry centered on the School Board, and whether in fact that body had voted on the charge and composition of this Commission.

On behalf of constituents, on Friday, May 6, I posed the following question to the School Board, via email:

Did you approve the charge and membership of the council proposed Advisory Commission?
On Saturday, May 7, I received the following reply from Mrs. Van Yahres:

It is my understanding that many Board member approve of the Commission or why would 5 of us appear at a press conference supporting it. I support it. It is a good opportunity to have a group of experienced people give us feedback on superintendents qualification criteria, the search process and possibly review of the final candidates. It would not usurp the responsibility of the Board. [sic]

Although Mrs. Van Yahres’ reply was somewhat unclear, the implication seemed to be that the School Board never specifically voted on the issue. A subsequent conversation with other School Board members confirmed that indeed, no School Board vote regarding the formation or charge of this commission had taken place.

The membership of this commission, as indicated in the city press release, has been established as follows:

• Former School Board Member
• Former Member of City Council
• Representative of the PTO Council
• Current City School Staff Member
• Representative from an organization involved with the low-income community
• City Manager
• Two members of the School Board

I do not believe that the membership of this group, as proposed, gives voice to the wide range of interests that many parties have in the process. Certainly, the categories of Commission membership should have been discussed, debated, and voted upon at open meetings of both the School Board and City Council, prior to the Council making any appointments. The Commission is intended to provide “the core” of public input in the superintendent search process yet, the general makeup of the group could be described as exclusionary, while some proposed positions seem redundant and potentially inappropriate. I am also bothered by the fact that specific names for certain positions seem to have been pre-decided by the drafters of this proposal. I am aware of this, because in private conversations, specific names were being strongly suggested to fill designated spots on the Commission.

Finally, I have heard concerns from constituents and some School Board members, that a Council-appointed commission is inappropriate in this case. Often, governing bodies desiring a task force or commission, themselves appoint the members of those bodies. Virginia State law attributes exclusive authority to local school boards to hire division superintendents, and this Commission’s stated intent is to assist the School Board in its superintendent search and hiring process.

If this Commission is to work directly with the School Board, then its members should be directly appointed by and thus accountable to the School Board. To introduce another indirect layer of accountability via Council appointments is to repeat the problem we experience currently with our appointed School Board: no distinct lines of accountability between the public and subsequent School Board actions and decisions. In effect, this Commission would serve as a “shadow board,” whose accountability relationships would be murky, which is not an improvement on our current situation.

If the majority of School Board desires assistance in their upcoming superintendent search, then they should appropriately decide upon a charge, and name the members to a commission as they have done previously. This should be done; however, only after a public dialogue and a public vote on the charge and composition of such a Commission has taken place. It is questionable to comprise a Commission intended to represent the “core” of public input on the important issue of hiring a division superintendent, without public input on the process of creating the Commission itself, as has been the case.

If the School Board seeks input from Council because it is deemed that Council’s assistance would be valuable, then perhaps a joint, public work session would be in order during which School Board members could seek Councils’ guidance. Certainly a public meeting such as this would be far preferable to, and more appropriate than the private, Closed Session planned for tonight wherein the public is excluded from the discussion.

In conclusion, I regret that I cannot participate in the naming of members to a Commission that reportedly was brought forth by a “consensus” of two governing bodies, because no substantive public discussion or vote of City Council or School Board has taken place. I cannot participate in the naming of a Commission that has the real possibility of increasing School Board accountability problems rather than alleviating them; and I cannot participate in the naming of a Commission that has been determined via a process devoid of significant public input thus far.

I look forward to assisting the School Board in its superintendent search in a manner that is consistent with the goals of transparent government and clear accountability and is fully open to public scrutiny and participation.


Rob Schilling

Schilling's thorough presentation of his position and civil tone stand in stark contrast to the approach of another local elected official.

The issues raised by Councilor Schilling are far from being settled. Expect them to be in the news for weeks, or even months, to come.

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