How to evaluate top school official draws fire EVERETT - Time is running out for the Everett School Board to evaluate the district’s superintendent behind closed doors, but a new proposal to get it done is raising eyebrows.
Board president Jeff Russell is proposing a committee of three board members privately evaluate Superintendent Gary Cohn after attempts to conduct a closed-door evaluation with the whole board failed.
The problem, Russell said last week, is board member Jessica Olson’s desire to record closed-door sessions. Olson said previously she has a right to video record as a form of taking personal notes. The board recently adopted policies against bringing any recording device, including cell phones, into closed-door sessions.
The board has yet to get a firm answer from the district’s attorney on who’s right.
“There’s only one reason we’re doing this,” Russell said, and that’s Olson’s public statements that she will refuse to shut off the camera.
Olson said Russell’s statement is inaccurate. She said she told board members she wasn’t going to record the discussion on the superintendent’s evaluation.
“I said as soon as we start talking about the superintendent’s evaluation, I’ll shut off the camcorder,” Olson said.
She disagrees with the policy that bans laptops and cell phones during closed-door sessions. She said the policy doesn’t apply to staff members who can bring their laptops into closed-door sessions.
The board could approve creating the three-member committee at its meeting this week. Russell would then select the committee’s members at the board’s Tuesday, March 13 meeting.
Olson most likely would be excluded from the committee, Russell said. Olson is the only board member expected to give a negative review of Cohn, but that is not why she would be excluded, Russell said.
Olson questions the legality of excluding members, and she thinks the board wants to shield Cohn from criticism.
The board has yet to evaluate Cohn’s performance. When it tried in August, Olson attempted to video record part of the closed-door session under protest the discussion should have been done in open session. The incident resulted in a minor physical scuffle between board members followed by a brief police investigation that resulted in zero charges.
Russell sees Olson’s persistence to turn on her camera as an impasse. He fears that without creating a committee the board will never be able to evaluate Cohn and fail to meet a state regulation requiring an annual review by May.
Russell admits there may be no way for all five board members to participate in the review. He says the committee can make the review without two members’ viewpoints.
In talking with the Tribune, Russell originally thought the two excluded board members could contribute by submitting written evaluations. When confronted whether that would create a “serial meeting,” Russell backtracked and said he has to get legal advice from the district’s attorneys.
Limiting the evaluation to among three board members would give an incomplete evaluation, Everett parent Kim Guymon said.
“Five people were elected, five people are Gary (Cohn’s) boss, five people should decide,” Guymon said.
Guymon created the grassroots Facebook group called the Everett School Board Project. The three-member committee is a step in the wrong direction for the public’s perception of the board, she said.
“I shake my head,” Guymon said. “I believe there are times when everyone, including Jessica, needs to take a breath. They’re so clouded by their vitriol now they can’t see the forest for the trees,” Guymon said.
On Jan. 26, the school board attended a forum to learn about open government policies. At a follow-up Jan. 29 board meeting, board members said the public’s perception of the district is critical. The district became dogged with mistrust since at least last year.
“The key phrase for the night was public trust,” Russell said at the Jan. 29 meeting.
The committee doesn’t help the public perception of the district, Guymon said.
“All we’re seeing is they want to hire a superintendent under secrecy,” she said.
At the same Jan. 29 meeting, the board discussed whether executive sessions should be recorded.
Olson thinks they should, but the idea doesn’t sit well with her fellow board members. They worry the recordings could become public records that must be given up if requested.
Russell said he cannot support the idea unless the recordings are kept private. He worries the district could be forced to release the tapes under the state Public Disclosure Act or potentially be sued for the tapes.
If the public thinks the committee is a bad idea, they should pressure Olson to comply with board policy, Russell said.