School board lacks transparency

By Messenger Staff | Published Saturday, June 9, 2018

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We have some questions and many concerns.

First, how can the Decatur School Board meet behind closed doors for seven hours on a single agenda item, and then come out and say nothing?

How can the school board president hire an attorney to represent (we assume) the board without getting the approval of other board members? We’ve heard through the grapevine that didn’t go over well, and the attorney left the meeting after about a half-hour at the request of some trustees.

We’ve heard, again through the grapevine, that some board members were blindsided by the letter board President Wade Watson sent to Superintendent Judi Whitis that resulted in the special meeting. They apparently were not the only ones.

And after getting the letter through an open records request (along with emails between Watson and Whitis and board updates from Whitis to the board in the last month) we still have one overriding question: If there were these concerns, why wait until now?

Over the past few months, there has been turnover in administration at several campuses. Jeff Russell left as high school principal for a central administration role in Denton ISD. But there’s been movement of other administrators to new roles within the district and a couple of other principals left, yet these changes were never mentioned at any board meetings.

Perception indicated trustees were behind the changes because no questions were raised. A glowing review of Whitis and a contract extension were handed out in February. Three months later, Watson writes in his letter: “When you were hired, we expressed we were not in search of a change agent for our district. We have had a lot of changes take place in the last nine months, and various members of the board are not confident that all of them have been in the best interest of the district.”

But again, this did not occur overnight. Where was the questioning or advising before sending a letter that ends: “if Dr. Whitis retains counsel, please have them contact Rhonda Crass directly.”

The Messenger did make a request for the contract and terms for hiring Crass. That request is pending.

The other allegations in Watson’s letter of personnel fearing retaliation and receiving demoralizing treatment are troubling and must be addressed. They should have been tackled as soon as those complaints were received.

An overriding theme is the lack of transparency at Decatur ISD. From a news coverage perspective, Decatur is one of the most difficult districts for us to cover. The discussion during public meetings is minimal compared to other districts such as Boyd and Northwest. Up until the May 21 meeting when plans for the classroom addition were shelved, there had been no real banter back and forth. That even seemed to come out of the blue.

It’s a shame there is not more public discussion of school district matters at regular board meetings, which always start with a blanket closed session. Board meetings have become nothing but cheerleading sessions for student achievement. That is important and wonderful, but there has to be much more open discussion of important matters like school safety, curriculum improvements, construction projects, employee retention and many others.

The district has appeared to have forgotten half its job. As the top taxing entity with more than $2 billion on the tax rolls, it has the obligation to be transparent and earn the public’s trust.

We are troubled by one email included in our public information request that mentioned discussions on keeping board officers the same being held outside a meeting.

After seeing the contents of Watson’s letter, the need for resolution on this issue is even more urgent to put an end to the rumor mill that was set in motion by saying nothing Tuesday night.

There is just one clear direction forward no matter who is in the superintendent’s office at the end of this, and that is for the board to bring the community back into the loop and truly serve Decatur. The community deserves it.

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