Retreat from transparency
It’s always a concern when a public agency steps back from a policy that helps inform the public. Tuesday, the Hillsborough School Board voted 5-2 to delay the automatic release of disciplinary cases involving district employees, making it more difficult for the public to learn about the cases until after the board considers how to punish the employee. On the surface, the delay seems a small annoyance for the press. But taken in a larger context, it continues a troubling trend. This is the same district that failed to tell the public about the death of a special-needs student who suffered a seizure on a bus. Not until a lawsuit was filed nine months later did the public learn about the death. And it wasn’t until the public scrutiny following the release of that information that every bus driver became acutely aware of the steps that can be taken to prevent a similar tragedy. Shortly after, without public discussion, the administration transferred the top administrator in the exceptional student education department to another job with the same salary. The vote Tuesday followed a discussion about Pierce Middle School teacher Ingrid Peavy, who is accused of failing to keep track of a student who walked five miles home without the knowledge of the school’s staff. The board suspended Peavy without pay. They also expressed their frustration with details of the case being reported in the press before the meeting.Until the vote Tuesday, the district posted details of the disciplinary cases in the meeting materials made public on the Wednesday before their Tuesday board meetings. In voting to delay the release of the information, board members said they wanted to make sure district employees weren’t judged to be guilty before the board had a chance to consider all of the facts. But that logic is flawed. The details of crimes are not withheld until the sentencing of those accused of crimes. And it presumes that the board’s own investigative arm, the Office of Professional Standards, will fail to render a fair accounting of the facts, or that the press will fail in its obligation to be fair. Granted, the details of the disciplinary cases will eventually become public. But this delay is unnecessary.