Monday, August 10, 2009

AISD's Secret Superintendent Candidates-Update

Freedom of Info

Instead of giving Austin Independent School district attorneys the go-ahead to fight an attorney general's open records rulling, the AISD Board of Trustees backed off a legal fight over releasing the names of the other applicants for superintendent for now.

Greg Abbott, Texas Attorney General, had agreed with attorneys for the Austin American-Statesman that the names should be made public in accordance with the Texas Open Records Act. The School Board was posted to decide whether to proceed with a legal defense of its secrecy in its meeting in two weeks.

The school district has already spent in excess of $21,000 to attorneys hired by the school district to support its position. AISD attorneys challenged the open records request from the American-Statesman and others saying that revealing the names of the applicants could hurt them and future searches for top talent. To proceed with the lawsuit would lead more legal expense.

Keith Elkins, executive director of the non-profit Freedom of Information Foundation in Texas spoke to the School Board meeting Monday night in oppostion to continuing the lawsuit. No others spoke. It was clear, however, that this question of whether it is legally and ethically correct to release the names of applicants for Superintendent is an issue that reaches beyond AISD to other jurisdictions in the state.

"School is about to start for the fall and Austin taxpayers should attend Monday night's meeting en masse to teach the AISD School Board Public Economics 101: $21,000 spent to repeatedly be told you are not above the law is totally unacceptable," says Keith Elkins, executive director of the non-profit Freedom of Information Foundation in Texas. "I do intend to go to the School Board meeting tonight to testify - depending on what action they do or do not take the FOIFT may take additional action later," Elkins said Monday afternoon.

“Two of the biggest threats to freedom of information in the future, in my opinion, are an apathetic citizenry and trying to balance the ‘public’s’ interest versus an ‘individual’s’ interest as it involves personal privacy,” says Elkins. Elkins was an Austin television investigative and legislative reporter for more than two decades.

“How many times do we hear that a news organization, or public watchdog group, is having to retain legal counsel to fight for governmental information that in many cases has already been ordered released by the Texas Attorney General. And yet, for whatever reason, some bureaucrat or newly elected official decides the law doesn’t apply to them. Eventually, the information is often finally released. But at what expense to the taxpayer?” Elkins continues.

Some of Mr. Elkins’ comments for this post were not a direct response to the legal issues confronting the board Monday night, but they are germane. He was talking about the ongoing threats to freedom of information in general.

“It may involve tens of thousands of dollars or possibly millions, at the federal level,” Elkins continued. “And while it makes for a sizzling investigative news story or provides ample fodder for critics of big government rarely, if ever, do taxpaying citizens rise up and say, ‘Enough is enough’ demanding to know how the bureaucrat or elected official could justify wasting THEIR tax money. Remember, Government is supposed to work for us – not the other way around.”

Elkins says this type of open records resistance is an example of just one of the threats to freedom of information in Texas.

“During this most recent legislative session multiple new laws were introduced which were designed to ‘seal-off’ previous public records and information readily available to the public – theoretically because it left state employees ‘vulnerable’ to potential identity theft, even though no hard evidence was presented to prove that theory,” Elkins says.

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas holds its 2009 Bernard and Audre Raporport State Conference Friday, August 21 at the Renaissance Hotel in Austin. State Senator Rodney Ellis, (D) Houston, is the conference Luncheon keynote speaker. State Senator Rodney Ellis, (D) Houston, is the conference's Luncheon Keynote Speaker. Ellis and State Representative Bob Hunter, (R) Corpus Christi, will receive the James Madison Award from the foundation. Ellis and Hunter were sponsors of the Texas Free Flow of Information Act, signed into law earlier this year by Governor Rick Perry. This award is given annually to honor those who have demonstrated outstanding commitment and service in upholding the principles of the First Amendment.

Conference agenda also includes panel discussions on social media and government, the recent legislative session, and shaping tomorrow’s open government by examining recent Freedom of Information rulings.

The Freedom of Information Foundation conference and/or luncheon is open to the public. The cost of the total conference, including the Keynote John Henry Faulk Awards Luncheon, and all sessions, is $100. The awards luncheon only is $75 per person. For more information or to register, visit or call the FOIFT office at (512) 377-1575.

© Jim McNabb, 2009


Anonymous said...

Isn't this simply the same situation as when you apply for a job and ask that your current employer not be contacted, so as not to jeopardize your current income?

Why does anyone need to know who was on the list? The common public probably couldn't care less as long as the current AISD chief turns things around.

It's probably a far more interesting story that the previous chief left the district in worse condition, in as far as school ratings, than when he got there... and he walked away without even a hint of that fact from said media.

This Freedom of Information group might want to consider which is the more important question, and further yet, what is the real problem with AISD that isn't a problem in other local school districts.

Yeah... that's a tough question.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to have to disagree with Anonymous that it's not our business, essentially, who the candidates are.

Yes, when you're hiring a $10 an hour public servant, most people really don't care.

But when you're talking about the person who runs the entire school system, we do have a right to know who the finalists are.

We DO have the right to voice our opinion on who we're going to pay to try and keep our damn schools from CLOSING because they're such crap.

Maybe some people are happy to nod your head and say "I trust you school board!" Not me.

Hiring for big jobs can come with big politics. Our school board, county commissioners, city councilmembers need to know they're being watched.

BTW: If you're a school superintendent in another city and your bosses learn you're looking for a job, it's not a big deal. If you're good, they'll fight to keep you. If you stink, they'll wave goodbye.

Anonymous said...

2nd anonymous has a lot to learn about politics... if a school board learns that their sup is looking elsewhere, they stand at the edge of a steep political slope of support.

Having been inside that arena and watched two superintendents bail out early, entrenched school board members become wary and cautious of supporting anything a possible out-going chief is proposing.

Furthermore, there is a large difference between a $10/hour worker and superintendent, but everyone from that civil servant to the superintendent worries about losing their income.

How about this Freedom of Info group foot the bill for this effort?

I'll bet they don't have the cojones to put their money where their collective mouths reside.

What pathetic, insignificant, matters-to-only-a-few-people, story could reside in finding out this info, anyway?

...and to the comment of "have the right to voice our opinion..."

...sure you do, but you elected somebody else to do the voting.


are you at liberty to jeopardize the careers of others?

Anonymous said...

The point is not who was being considered for the job as much as it is the school board blowing 21k to fight something the are legally obligated to provide.

A.I.S.D. School board have been screw ups for as long as I can remember and I could care less who the considered along with most in my opinion. If they put the kind of effort into improving their schools and keeping them from closing as they did trying to hide information that they legally are SUPPOSED to provide I don't think we'd be reading/hearing about tragedies such as Pearce.

I've had to cover enough aisd board meetings to know that no child of mine will EVER attend one of their schools if I can help it.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jim, for such incisive coverage of this issue and the vital role of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas in helping all of us learn what's really happening behind the scenes of elected bodies throughout the state.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous #3

"What pathetic, insignificant, matters-to-only-a-few-people, story could reside in finding out this info, anyway?"

Matters to only a few people? Really. I must disagree with you.

What if the media found out that this superintendent was being pushed out for highly controversial policies? You wouldn't want to know about that?

"How about this Freedom of Info group foot the bill for this effort?

I'll bet they don't have the cojones to put their money where their collective mouths reside."

Newspapers and tv stations put their money where their mouths are all the time. They sue when they have to in order to get the information to which the public is legally entitled.

Just because you don't want to read it doesn't mean the rest of us don't.

"...but you elected somebody else to do the voting."

This is hilarious. I guess it's OK then when a politician goes bad, takes bribes, or whatever, because we elected him/her?

That's a fantastic perspective. We're all supposed to be sheep? Inspiring.

Keith Elkins said...

Public service is not about the rights of an individual but the rights of a collective group, in this case AISD taxpayers. It's about understanding going into any job negotiation that those hired will be under a microscope of scrutiny that may not shine as bright in private sector employment. It's called accountability. And in this case, the elected Board of Trustees have a fiduciary obligation to act "in the best interest" of the taxpayers and 83,000 children they serve - not a single job applicant. What kind of message does AISD send to any potential Superintendant candidate when it implicit agrees to withhold information from the public - who are responsible for picking up the costs? Do you think if that person is hired they that hit the ground running with intentions of putting the "public" first - or bending the rules when "they think" they shouldn't apply to AISD? Perhaps more importantly, in this case, the decision to file a lawsuit was not made by the elected Board of Trustees who are "accountable" to taxpayers for their actions but by an AISD employee, the District's lone General Counsel. A trained professional who felt the lawsuit against the Texas Attorney General was the right thing to do. It was an excercise that has now cost more than $21,000 at a time when the new Superintendant has been directed - by the Board - to scrub the operating budget looking into "every corner for possible cost savings." Perhaps the Board of Trustees will help her out by following their own recommendation and voting against the continuation of this ill-fated lawsuit two weeks from now, when they scheduled revisiting this issue. Think about it. I have. It's my job. And Mr. or Ms. "Anonymous" I have no hesitation to step out of the shadows and identify myself - what about you? As Chief Justice Brandeis has said, "Sunshine is the Best Disinfectant."

Anonymous said...

Bring it, Keith. I love the sunshine. It's actually my favorite word. Except for muffin, but that's more of a love of the concept than the word.