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Board secrecy sadly reflects schools' plight

Here's a suggestion for Buffalo Board of Education members who tried to spin their closed-door fiasco dealing with the superintendent's future into a Kumbaya moment of "candid" private conversation:

Why don't you try being candid with the public?

You remember the public, those folks who pay your salary, vote for you and entrust their children to you?

After holding a closed special meeting that made them look foolish when they couldn't make a decision, board members emerged saying they talked not only about Superintendent James A. Williams, but about the future of the district.

You don't have to be a legal scholar to realize that such discussions should be held in front of citizens who have a vital interest in the future of the schools.

In fact, even if they had been talking only about whether to buy out Williams' contract instead of waiting until he retires next year, board members still could have done it in public, New York State's expert on open government told The Buffalo News.

There was nothing that compelled the board to kick out the media and draw the shades -- except the fear of what citizens might learn from an open discussion.

They might have learned what a frustrated board President Ralph Hernandez meant when he said later that the superintendent and teachers union "rule this district." Going into the special meeting, Hernandez was sure there were five votes to buy out Williams and move on, only to find no such majority.

It doesn't take much reading between the lines to conclude that Hernandez felt the prospect of union phone banks, campaign workers and financial contributions at election time played a key role in flipping some board members.

Still, it would be nice to have that kind of discussion in the open so that board members would either have to publicly side with students or let parents see where their allegiances really lie. As long as they hide behind closed doors, the slogan "putting students first" holds about as much validity as "the check is in the mail" and "my computer was hacked."

It also would be instructive to hear from some board members why Williams' sixth year on the job was so much different from his prior five.

This is, after all, the same board majority that gave the superintendent a contract extension just 12 months ago. Test scores, graduation rates and attendance rates didn't suddenly plummet in one year.

Gaining community buy-in demands a detailed explanation from those who favor immediately ousting him. If, in the past year, his refusal to remove principals from failing schools, bloated administrative staff and withholding of information from the board justify new leadership immediately, that should be debated in public, not with the public locked out.

Who knows? If board members knew that the public could listen in, it might prompt a little more clarity of thought before they speak or vote, lest they embarrass themselves individually instead of just collectively. In fact, if the only way they can speak candidly is in private, it makes you wonder about the veracity of anything they say in public.

But hiding is nothing new for this board, which wouldn't even release all the details of its recent evaluation of Williams. It's a measure of their leadership -- or lack thereof -- that board members can't deal with difficult issues in public and trust taxpayers to understand.

Treat the public like adults, not like children -- and especially not like the children in Buffalo's foundering schools, who continue to pay the price for a foundering board.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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