Many school districts create committees of parents and staff to review the academic calendar each year. What's unique to DeKalb County Public Schools is that it shrouded its committee in secrecy.
This is a committee that considers a two-day break in February vs. a three-day break. It's not going behind closed doors to elect a new pope. It's also advisory; it makes recommendations, not policy.
I can't buy that the climate in DeKalb -- or any district -- is so polarized or politicized the administration has to assure calendar committee members witness protection to get them to serve. Then, too, there is the matter of Georgia's open records and meeting laws, which spell out any exemptions. A committee reviewing the school calendar is not among the exceptions.
On Jan. 16, I asked DeKalb whether this was true, and, if so, was the district aware it was breaking state law? After several emails prods, I received a list Tuesday of the 16 committee members with only first names, except for four central office administrators. My questions on the legality were ignored.
That led me to widen my inquiries, including to school board member Marshall Orson, who is an attorney. Orson expressed surprise the district was treating the committee as protected information and promised to look into it.
A few hours later, I received a call from DeKalb Superintendent Steve Green. "Sometime, in past practice, people who were on the committee were promised privacy. We have to do root canal because it is a false promise and never should have been in play in the first place. It was illegal and not right."
I asked Green why he told parents at a meeting that he couldn't disclose the members. "I thought they were protected, that they had signed a form that gave them this privacy. I did not know there could not be an agreement like that."
Shortly after Green's call, DeKalb sent me the full names and now anyone can see them as well. The issue wasn't that I wanted to know the names. I wanted to know why DeKalb broke the law to hide this innocuous information from the public.
Tucker parent Kirk Lunde has long been frustrated by DeKalb's lack of transparency and the obstacles it places in the way of citizens seeking public records. "Every calendar committee has been secret for the last 10 years or so. Dr. Green is right that he inherited the problem, but it has not changed since he arrived and claimed he was going to change the culture. It has not changed."
Even school board member Stan Jester was denied the names of committee members. In a recent email, Lisa Martin, chief academic officer, curriculum & instruction, and Stacy Stepney, director of elective and special instruction, told Jester: "Due to the nature of the task, Calendar Committee members have been assured anonymity from the Central Office level." (They are both on the calendar committee.)
What's disingenuous about that explanation is DeKalb has had committees that dealt with issues more explosive than the academic calendar. The district relied on a task force of citizens and parents to recommend school closings. Its members were not only public; they held meetings attended by hundreds of parents.
"I don’t understand the district’s resistance to complying with the law. It undermines trust as a whole and it is wrong," said Jester.
Charles Davis agrees. The dean of the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, Davis decried what he called a reflexive rush to secrecy in DeKalb. "It is incumbent on citizens to always ask. And the burden of proof should be on government every time something is secret. Every time something is closed, government has to give a compelling reason. With an academic calendar committee, there is zero reason."
Davis dismissed the defense that secrecy was the only way to entice people to serve as "balderdash." Worldwide, citizens serve on councils, commissions and boards that make controversial decisions and they and their deliberations are public, he said.
"DeKalb relented in this instance and did the right thing, and kudos to them for doing so. But they wouldn’t have done so had you not poked and prodded,'' said Davis. "People are cynical right now and distrustful of public institutions and this is why. This breeds cynicism."
By suppressing something as routine as a calendar review committee, DeKalb prompts the question: Is more consequential stuff being hidden from public view?