Did members of the Youngstown Board of Education violate state law when they gave reporters a written job evaluation of Superintendent Connie Hathorn that was missing a crucial piece of information? One of the leading legal experts on Ohio’s public records and open meetings has no doubt that they did.
Cleveland Atty. David Marburger’s opinion is good enough for us, which is why we believe a state investigation of the actions of board President Richard Atkinson, Vice President Brenda Kimble and Ronald Shadd, Kimble’s son, is justified.
The Ohio Department of Education, which has a particular interest in the Youngstown school system because of its academic and fiscal failings, and the special state commission that is guiding the district’s academic recovery should determine what occurred last week with the Hathorn evaluation.
At issue is a written response from the superintendent to the less-than-stellar score of 3 he received for his job performance last year.
He was evaluated in five standards and could have received a ranking of 1, the lowest, to 5, the highest. Hathorn, who is completing his fourth year as the superintendent, is in the unenviable position of having to answer to two masters, the Youngstown School District State Academic Distress Commission and the board of education.
Here’s what he wrote at the bottom of the official evaluation form: “I do not agree with the evaluation.”
But when copies of the form were given to reporters, that line was missing.
Vindicator Reporter Denise Dick became aware of the omission only after she asked for a copy of the official evaluation that’s in Hathorn’s file maintained by the human resources office.
Dick realized that she had two different versions and asked the board members about it.
Atkinson, Kimble and Shadd insist that the omission was unintentional, and they blamed their unfamiliarity with the copying machine for the missing line on the copies handed out on the evening of the board meeting at which the superintendent’s performance was discussed.
But Atty. Marburger, who’s been in the forefront of the battle to keep Ohio’s public- records and open-meetings laws from being watered down, told The Vindicator that removing any information from an original public document without making that known is against the law.
“It’s completely unlawful, and it’s deceptive,” said Marburger of the law firm of BakerHostetler. “It’s deceit ... You can’t trust these public servants.”
Given the board of education’s less-than-stellar record on transparency and openness, this violation of state statute cannot go unchallenged.
We would urge the state superintendent of public instruction and the chairman of the academic distress commission to conduct a formal investigation to determine if what occurred was truly the result of three adults not being able to operate a copying machine or a conspiracy by board members to keep crucial information about the superintendent from the public.
Hathorn’s disagreement with what amounts to a “satisfactory” evaluation is not to be taken lightly.
The school district is at a crossroads, with pressure to improve its academic performance increasing by the day.
Hathorn believes he has put in place numerous programs to ensure student success and that there has been a sea-change in the way the urban district is operating since the time he was appointed superintendent.
The board, however, seems to believe that there is a lot of room for improvement.
Who’s right? The next state report card will tell.
Meanwhile, members of the board of education must know they’re under the microscope and that their every move is being monitored.
They were wrong in releasing a copy of the superintendent’s evaluation without his written comment, and for that they deserve to be publicly reprimanded.