Haslam’s private meeting draws criticism
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG  Banner Staff Writer
Jul 23, 2014 | 2727 views | 0 0 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
At least two Bradley County Board of Education members are unhappy the governing body was not informed of what became a secret meeting in Cleveland on Monday between Gov. Bill Haslam, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and educators from five area school systems.

Haslam and Huffman met with 10 selected representatives from the Bradley County, Cleveland, Hamilton County, Meigs County and Rhea County school systems in the central office of the Bradley County school system.

The unannounced session, which also excluded the news media, was held in the same chambers used by the county school board, a fact that didn’t sit well with its members.

The school board’s Chris Turner said members received an email about the meeting after its conclusion Monday night. Sent by Sammie Humphrey, the assistant to Bradley County Schools Director Johnny McDaniel, the email stated the governor’s office had told local school officials they “... were not allowed to inform board members or media in advance of the event.”

Turner said the fact that school board members were not made aware of the gathering concerned him because he wondered if that meant Haslam and Huffman had “something to hide.”

“That concerns me greatly,” Turner told the Cleveland Daily Banner. “I’m going to assume the worst if it’s a private meeting. Why would you hide this meeting?”

Describing himself as “outraged,” Turner stressed that both the local school system and the state governor’s office need to practice transparency because the educational issues that have been discussed statewide have implications for how children learn in school.

“I think it’s critically important,” Turner said.

While he pointed out he had not yet spoken with anyone who attended the meeting, Turner said he was left to wonder if it concerned serious matters like a “grassroots campaign” meant to be used for political gain.

Talking with the Banner this morning, McDaniel acknowledged the governor’s office asked if the Bradley County school system could host the meeting, and the governor decided who would be invited to attend.

McDaniel discussed the meeting’s content.

He said Haslam kicked off the session by explaining why the gathering was organized to include only educators. McDaniel said Haslam told the group he wanted them to be able to talk about their concerns freely.

“At the time, it seemed pretty straightforward,” McDaniel said. “He didn’t want them to feel impeded.” 

David Smith, Haslam’s spokesman, told the Banner late Tuesday the governor has made a habit of holding such meetings and is currently traveling to cities around the state to hear from local teachers and administrators.

Haslam is expected to have attended a dozen such meetings statewide this summer.

“Some of those have been public events, and some have been more intimate,” Smith said. “Last year, he did a series of meetings with superintendents across the state, and these meetings like the one in Cleveland are a continuation of those, including teachers and principals.”

Smith said the governor’s office partnered with the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents to organize the meetings, and superintendents of each school system were instructed to choose two representatives to be part of their area’s session.

TOSS “took the lead” in organizing the meetings that way “in order to keep them as manageable-sized groups so the meetings can have a candid and productive conversation,” Smith said.

The Bradley County school system’s representatives were North Lee Elementary School Principal Nat Akiona and Bradley County Mathematics Coordinator Amber Caldwell, McDaniel explained.

The Cleveland City Schools representatives were Stuart Elementary School Literacy Leader Karen Hall and Mayfield Elementary School Principal Kelly Kiser, according to Andrea Byerly, assistant to the Cleveland City Schools director.

While Haslam had some questions for the educators, Smith said it was meant to be more of a time for the governor to hear local educators’ concerns than for him to speak on his personal views.

“This is a chance for him to listen and a chance for teachers to tell the governor what’s on their mind,” Smith said. “He wants to hear what’s working and what’s not working. These are meetings for him to hear from teachers and educators — specifically people in the classrooms and the schools.”

Though the school board members and news media were excluded, the meeting did not appear to be in violation of state open meetings laws.

Tennessee Code Annotated 8-44-102 section B reads that “all meetings of any governing body are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times, except as provided by the Constitution of Tennessee.” 

A “governing body is defined as the members of any public body which consists of two or more members, with the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public body on policy or administration” or “a community action agency which administers community action programs under the provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 2790 [repealed].” 

Though the respective school systems that hired each of the teacher representatives are considered to be government entities, the teachers themselves are not required to make their meetings public. Though the governor and the education commissioner are elected or publicly appointed officials, they — on their own — are not considered “governing bodies.” 

Akiona, one of the four local educator representatives, described the meeting with the state officials as a positive one.

He described the meeting as a chance for the state officials and educators to ask questions of each other.

“Governor Haslam listened more than he spoke,” Akiona said. “He just wanted to know how things were progressing and how teachers were feeling.”

He said those who attended the meeting discussed topics that ranged from Common Core State Standards to what could be next for the state in terms of assessments.

Akiona said he was not aware that the governor’s office had specifically asked that school board members and news media not be informed of the gathering, but he believed the meeting was not really “for” them.

“They wanted the ‘boots on the ground’ side of things,” Akiona said. “The focus of our conversation had to do with what was in the classroom.”

He said local educators were allowed to share specific ideas on issues like new academic assessments.

“We requested there be a one-year hiatus from assessments being linked to teacher performance,” Akiona said.

Vicki Beaty, chair of the Bradley County Board of Education, echoed Turner’s concerns that the board was not informed of the visit until after the meeting was held.

“To receive that information after the fact was unfortunate,” Beaty stressed.

She said she believed it would have been appropriate for the officials elected to represent the people of Bradley County on educational issues to have the opportunity to attend — if not participate in — the meeting.

In addition to the school board members, she said she believes there are “a lot of interested parties” who would have liked to have heard the discussion.

Beaty pointed out issues like Common Core have been of concern to Bradley County residents, and the Bradley County Commission has even passed resolutions regarding the state standards.

She said she would have preferred to have seen Haslam and Huffman hold a public meeting to discuss educational issues so local residents could gain more insight into their thoughts on the future.

“I regret that they felt slighted in some way,” McDaniel said of the school board members. “That was not my intention. That was the governor’s decision — who was at the table.” 

Dr. Martin Ringstaff, director of Cleveland City Schools, could not be reached by the Banner for comment.

While Beaty said she did not like how the meeting was organized, she was glad state officials were taking the time to listen to the concerns of the school system representatives who attended the meeting.

“Mr. McDaniel stated to me the meeting went well,” Beaty said. “Hopefully, something good will come from these meetings.” 

But another Bradley County voice who weighed in on the unannounced gathering isn’t so accepting.

Dan Rawls, leader of the Tea Party of Southeast Tennessee who said he has faced “transparency” issues previously with the Bradley County Schools administrative offices, pointed to the timing of Monday’s unannounced session.

“... It appears to me that once again the central office of Bradley County Schools is thumbing its nose at the taxpayers and the media/Cleveland Daily Banner who less than two weeks ago wrote about the lack of transparency in the central office,” Rawls told the Banner.

He added, “... I know personally about the lack of transparency from my own attempts to get public documents from this same central office.”

Of the format of Monday’s session being brainstormed by Haslam, Rawls stated, “The excuse that the hiding of this meeting from all the stakeholders was demanded by the governor will not fly ... and maybe no law was broken, but that doesn’t make this right. These continuing episodes of breach of public trust will stop and the use of taxpayers’ resources and facilities here in Bradley County to push what appears to be a secret/hidden agenda by our state government ... that is a threat to our local control of not only our schools but our resources and our lives.”

Rawls’ reference to the school system central office’s transparency dates back to an Open Records Act requested by the Banner to view copies of the board members’ performance evaluations of McDaniel. Central office staff turned over the request to school board attorney Chris McCartney of Knoxville, who refused the formal request. McCartney cited the evaluation forms were “working papers” and not subject to Open Records laws.

However, a legal ruling by Tennessee Open Records Counsel Elisha Hodge determined the evaluation forms can be publicly inspected. Although declaring he disagreed with Hodge’s ruling, McCartney later handed over the documents to the Banner.

A subsequent editorial published by the newspaper urged the school system and school board to maintain total transparency in future decisions.

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(Editor’s Note: Cleveland Daily Banner Staff Writer Brian Graves and Associate Editor Rick Norton contributed to this story.)