Within the Communications Committee, as we prepared the first survey, one of the things I argued strongly for was the release of comments received on the survey. I felt that the shared experience of speaking our minds and hearing what other parents said was an important exercise and had value in and of itself. The counter argument focused on protecting confidentiality regarding personnel issues. Certainly in any organization, personnel issues are normally confidential. In a “regular” business, employee performance reviews are not shared with all the other employees plus a company’s customers and vendors. We talked about how teachers or other staff might feel in reading anonymous comments about themselves, with no opportunity to answer or refute or explain or even question veracity.
We also talked about the Board’s relationship with, and obligations to, staff. The State of New Jersey’s Code of Ethics for School Board Members (18A:12-24.1) has three sections that apply:
g.) I will hold confidential all matters pertaining to the schools which, if disclosed, would needlessly injure individuals or the schools.Board members’ interpretation of these ethics provisions, among other things, can color how they approach public conversations about staff.
i.) I will support and protect school personnel in proper performance of their duties.
j.) I will refer all complaints to the chief administrative officer and will act on the complaints at public meetings only after failure of an administrative solution.
When the comments came in, we endeavored to avoid any issues by removing (from the report) comments in which a staff member’s identity could be discerned. This sounded simple and turned out to be so much more complicated and time consuming. We had committees of staff and parents, we worked in groups, it took forever. But we came up with what we thought were “releasable” comments for each school. We knew this was a dramatic change in District culture, but we thought it was important and we thought we had been sensitive and had succeeded in a solution.
After the reports were released, some administrators immediately began to hear from staff members who were uncomfortable or concerned or upset. This was not something considered “normal” in the District’s culture. We were shown examples of where, in spite of our efforts, we had missed deleting identifiable comments. With such a large number of comments, and a committee of several people assessing, not always consistently, we needed to pause. The comments were quickly removed from the reports, so that the committee and the Board could discuss how to proceed. (Note: each report did retain a summary of comments on key themes.)
I was surprised that we didn’t hear a peep from parents about removing the individual comments from the online reports. It was mentioned in the newspaper, at BOE meetings and at HSA meetings. No one complained. No one seemed to mind. I had expected to hear from someone or to read criticisms on a blog, mine or others, but nope.
As I mentioned before, all the comments were distributed to BOE members, principals and other administrators. Principals reviewed them with staff at faculty meetings.
When it came time to plan the 2nd survey, the committee recommended that the Board not publish the comments in public reports. I had to grudgingly agree that no one had seemed to mind last time, and it would allow us to get the reports out weeks earlier than last year. We hadn’t really had time to address the staff response and how we could keep the process positive for the entire community…my intention at the time was to keep working on this concept and hopefully find a way to evolve to more disclosure with future surveys. The bottom line (for me) was: the most important result was that all the comments be seen by administrators and the BOE.
So that’s the story from my perspective. I don’t know what to say to anonymous claims of “repeat abusers.” Any alleged abuse or misconduct must be reported and the administration is required to address it. There is a clear process that elevates unresolved issues to the BOE (but only after the chain of command has been exhausted). In my experience, BOE members take such reports extremely seriously.
In an earlier comment, I said I would research the legal basis for BOE members not discussing staff members' performance in public. The Code of Ethics sections cited above are part of it, but I'm still researching what Board policies, as well as employment law and state education law, apply.
I'm not sure when the emails for the new survey will go out -- presumably soon -- but I hope all parents will participate and will be free and open with their responses and their comments.