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School board’s transparency becomes hot issue with public

by Peter Weinberger | pweinberger@claremont-courier.com

In some respects, I’m still trying to process exactly what happened. What could have been seen as a positive move for Claremont in hiring Jim Elsasser back, turned into a circus of pointing fingers, upset residents, and a school board that simply ignored any opportunity for transparency with the public.

What I have learned over the years is that two things need to happen for elected officials to be transparent. To start, they must believe transparency is critical in maintaining a healthy relationship with the public. That it’s the right thing to do because residents are better off when educated, not when sitting in the dark. Residents want to know how their city is being governed.

But some politicians simply do not believe in transparency. Communicating with the public becomes a game. Talking to the media is avoided. Once politicians start playing word games with answers, avoid making public documents available, or delay submitting paperwork, trust simply evaporates. Why should we trust Claremont’s school board when those officials don’t seem to trust the public? It’s a two-way street.

When CUSD sat on releasing the figures for Jeff Wilson’s severance, it looked like they were hiding something, even if they were not. While the COURIER made repeated requests to board President Steven Llanusa to release Wilson’s non-confidential severance information, it became a constant game of dodgeball to avoid making the settlement figures public. Between the “no comments” and lawyer blaming, misinformation on what is and isn’t confidential, demanding the COURIER fill out a Freedom of Information Request (which was not necessary), or just not answering phone calls, texts or emails, the board clearly had no intention of cooperating. Why? Maybe they just didn’t want to deal with a more irritated public at the April 21 board meeting.

This lack of transparency was the root cause why the public (and the COURIER) questioned their actions, especially the hiring of Elsasser. Even if the school board could not answer all the questions, a simple statement stating they hear the public and more information was forthcoming. Lack of answers, will only bring on more questions. And that’s exactly what happened.

There’s always another side to a story and I would be remiss in stating that most employment information of elected officials is confidential. This is an area where the public can easily be confused, left wondering why their questions are not being answered. In some cases, officials simply can’t answer for a variety of legitimate reasons. That was at play with Wilson’s departure.

Remember when former City Manager Tara Schultz left town? When the public wants answers, the one big question is usually, “why?” But that employment information is confidential and rarely ever disclosed. In Schultz’s case, the city responded just like the school board by delaying the release of severance details until the COURIER filed an unnecessary Freedom of Information Request. And like the city with Schultz, the school board likely will never tell us why they kicked Wilson out and hired Elsasser.

Then there’s the switcharoo with superintendents. I can understand why CUSD wants Elsasser back. During his tenure, his office was always open, he would actually call you back, even if he didn’t answer all your questions. I personally thought a calm came over CUSD, which is a direct result of good leadership. I realize not everyone shares this opinion, but the guy definitely knew what he was doing.

There’s also a downside in fast-tracking any hire, even good ones. By not opening the job to all applicants, issues like diversity and fair play comes into question. When did the board know Elsasser was available? Who contacted whom? And there must have been other qualified candidates, but we will never know. In fact, the method of this hire left more questions than answers.

Let’s not forget Jeff Wilson. Is this the way to treat anyone you hire? How would you feel watching people almost be giddy about a new hire replacing you? Why fire him on March 17, way before anyone else could take over? Wilson isn’t just a lame duck, he’s a dead duck standing. And of course, rumors started to flow that he wasn’t this or that during his tenure. But that’s just talk. Certainly, he’s taking one for the CUSD team while a tornado swirls around him. To me, it shows a lot of professionalism. Even though, like the school board, he refused to talk.

I’m sorry I cannot answer more questions, rather than ask them. But that’s the nature of this entire situation. I’m confident Elsasser can change the narrative and move the district forward. Although he may find his job harder than it used to be.

One thing is for sure. Residents are going to remember what happened come November. Hopefully, we will have more choices for school board candidates. Maybe it will motivate Claremonters to exercise their vote, or even participate in governing.

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