Board Told To Keep Birks Eval Secret

Christopher Peak PhotoA consultant advised New Haven’s Board of Education not to put any part of the schools superintendent’s upcoming performance review on paper, other than a single summary sheet at the end.

Otherwise, he warned, the public would find out what’s really in it, through a public-records request.

President Darnell Goldson didn’t agree with that advice. He said he’s considering a move in the other direction entirely, holding the superintendent’s entire evaluation in public.

Superintendent Carol Birks, meanwhile, said she’s undecided on whether she wants an audience to sit in on her review.

That issue — of the public’s right to know whether Birks is actually doing the job she’s being paid $235,000 a year to do — came up at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting in the Celentano School cafeteria, as the four board members present unanimously adopted a new rating system.

Under state law, boards of education must evaluate their superintendents annually. During that process, they have a chance to give feedback about how the superintendent’s work stacks up against the district’s goals.

According to the rubric passed on Monday night, Birks will be assessed on seven different criteria: “visionary leadership,” “instructional leadership,” “talent development and labor relations,” “culture and climate,” “operational and fiscal improvements,” “family and community engagement,” and “leadership in collaborative governance.”

State Hush-Hush Trend

 

Whether her grades in those areas will eventually become public still isn’t clear.

In Connecticut, almost all teacher evaluations are private. That’s because lawmakers don’t want principals to be deluged with calls from parents asking for their child to be reassigned to a different teacher, said Kathleen Ross, a staff attorney at the state’s Freedom of Information Commission.

State legislators did include one exception to the law, however, saying the superintendent is the only school employee whose evaluation must be disclosed when a member of the public requests it.

School boards across Connecticut have tried to skirt that provision by evaluating the superintendent behind closed doors without leaving any written record behind.

In 2016, after surveying 133 school districts, the Hartford Courant’s Jordan Otero Sisson found that roughly one-third of school boards give only verbal feedback in executive session.

“If there’s no record, then there’s nothing we can order them to disclose,” Ross said.

What Records?

For years, New Haven’s Board of Education used the same move to block access to these evaluations. Back in 1986, three reporters from the New Haven Register’s parent company filed an appeal to the Freedom of Information Commission. They were trying to get a copy of then-Superintendent John Dow’s evaluation. The school board said that it had no records to produce.

The Freedom of Information Commission ordered board members and school staff to file affidavits attesting that they hadn’t written anything down. But without a legal basis to do much more, the commission ripped into the board in a scathing ruling, criticizing the “ill-conceived efforts to evade their responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act and to abrogate their duties as public officials.” 

“The board has acted irresponsibly by eliminating a written performance evaluation record of such a high level public official merely to avoid public oversight,” the commission’s decision read. “In this case, the board, in effect, has left itself powerless to take any disciplinary action concerning the superintendent’s performance as provided by contract.

“Moreover,” the decision continued, “the Commission believes that the respondents’ fear of the public’s reaction to the evaluation process insults the intelligence of the citizens of New Haven and has no place in a representative democracy.”

Former Mayor John DeStefano began making his own management evaluations public after losing an FOIC challenge. In 2010, his evaluations included one of then-Superintendent Reggie Mayo, which was made public. (Click here to read about that.)

New Haven Was Transparent — In 2015

In 2015, the last time that New Haven’s school board graded its superintendent, the district released a comprehensive evaluation, with both Garth Harries’s written self-assessment and the Board of Ed’s written feedback.

Four years later, the process might go differently, depending on whether they take advice from a consultant at the CT Center for School Change. Mayor Toni Harp tapped the consultant, former Farmington Superintendent Robert Villanova, for help in designing the evaluation tool.

His presentation on Monday included a suggested timeline that showed the superintendent sharing only a verbal self-assessment in a July executive session, possibly backed up with documentation. Then, the board should share its evaluation in a September executive session, either as a “written or verbal” draft.

Villanova said that the only document that makes it into the superintendent’s personnel file would be a summary.

“Any written comments on this form are FOI-able, so typically boards of education use this form as a reference sheet without filling it out,” he said. “They’d only fill it out in summary end at the end. That would be your choice.”

Villanova added that some document should go into the personnel file to help track the superintendent’s progress toward district goals.

“That allows history to be in place,” he said. “Boards turn over; conditions change. It’s important to have a record of the performance of the superintendent over the years.”

After that, Goldson asked if the Board of Ed could take the superintendent’s evaluation public instead.

That’s up to the board’s discretion, Villanova said.

“Some boards do that public session so the community sees the goals that the board and the superintendent are agreeing to,” he said. “But because it’s part of the evaluation, it’s your prerogative, and you could have your attorney review that. I’ve seen it done both ways.”

There is one catch, though: Birks can legally demand an open discussion.

That doesn’t typically happen, Ross said.

“The superintendent probably doesn’t mind having the performance evaluation done in executive session,” he said. “Usually, that happens when a board plans to fire an employee in secret.”

Board member Joseph Rodrigez also asked how other boards normally gather “input from other stakeholders beyond this body,” like parents and teachers, before filling out their evaluations.

Maybe that could happen at an open forum, Goldson proposed.

Villanova said that the performance evaluation is a process that the board usually completes alone.

“As elected officials, I expect that you meet with people all day and all year long. Part of your judgment of the superintendent’s performance, based on these criteria, is going to incorporate community input that you’ve heard,” he said. “That kind of community input that elected officials get automatically is different than having a formal meeting where the superintendent’s evaluation is the focus. That seems to be out of bounds of your contract.”

After the meeting, Birks said she was unsure how she’d like her evaluation to be handled. “I would want to consult my attorney, because [a public evaluation] wasn’t the agreement originally,” she said. “I’m not sure.”

Goldson said he’d be looking over the agreement too. “I’d rather it be public, to tell you the truth,” he said. “But I need to look at the contract to see what we can and can’t do.”

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posted by: Noteworthy on January 30, 2019  6:12pm

Disgraceful Advice Notes:

1. Robert Villanova is a disgrace to public information, public financing and public disclosure.

2. Fire this SOB.

3. That this board would use a dime of my tax money to get a report that recommends hiding the results of the highest paid person in this city is beyond disgraceful.

4. If Dr. Birks, the mayor and this board go along with this travesty - they should all be thrown out of office.

5. We are the public. This is our city. We pay a lot of freaking taxes. What we have is a school system that is poor at best run by a board that spends more time fighting and playing games than listening to parents and doing right by kids.

6. There is nothing that should be private - not Will Clark’s $102,000 golden parachute - and the reasons why and damn sure not for Dr. Birks and her evaluation.

7. By the way - I heard she demanded a new mercedes benz as part of her contract. Is that true?

posted by: Not Worthy on January 30, 2019  6:14pm

As a town employee the Superintendent has a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to personal issues, health, etc. But in terms of doing her actual job?  Every document and official judgment relating to the Superintendent’s performance should be made public. This is a no-brainer.

People will and should assume that any material that has been suppressed is evidence of malfeasance or failure. 

Accountability is not just for the little people.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on January 30, 2019  6:21pm

“a consultant at the CT Center for School Change. Mayor Toni Harp tapped the consultant, former Farmington Superintendent Robert Villanova, for help in designing the evaluation tool.”

It might be useful to know that Robert Villanova is the Director of UConn’s School of Education’s Executive Leadership Program, from which Dr. Birks graduated in 2008.  He also served on her transition team.  Villanova said that the rubric had been designed by Birks and her staff; he’d merely dropped it into his presentation.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on January 30, 2019  7:59pm

>>> “That this board would use a dime of my tax money to get a report that recommends hiding”

Noteworthy, Villanova said he is being paid by the Center for School Change, not by the district directly.  I have so far been unable to find any contract with that organization in the Board’s public agendas.

posted by: Elmmy on January 30, 2019  8:02pm

OK then. If there is no written record of the Superintendent’s review, then the BOE is simply not doing their job to an acceptable degree. They have to be held accountable for the decisions they make. And the only way they can defend their decisions is written proof of the reason why they made the decisions they made.
I think they may have used an incorrect word in the title of the BOE. It seems like they are more Bored of Education, rather than Board of Education.

posted by: Noteworthy on January 30, 2019  9:16pm

Jill The Pill - Do you have any idea how much taxpayer money has and is poured into the black hole of UCONN? Sorry - his expertise and advice isn’t worth a tinker’s damn and absolutely worthless if he recommends any strategy that hides information from the public.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on January 30, 2019  9:27pm

Noteworthy, I think you miss my point.  His working for free would be a further indication that he is an old buddy, old pal rather than an objective advisor to the Board.

posted by: NewHavenLongTimer on January 30, 2019  11:46pm

I can’t believe what I’m reading here. The entire New Haven community should be outraged. The bottom line is that any “consultant’s review” for a public official that includes the recommendation of “make sure you hide this”, should not be valued by the tax payers at all. It should be held in a completely different way. Instead, a magnifying glass should be brought out and used to find exactly what they intend to hide. Those items that they intended to hide should then be brought to light. This is completely pathetic. The BOE is responsible for whatever direction this goes into. End of story.

posted by: wendy1 on January 31, 2019  4:38am

Very messy…....

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on January 31, 2019  7:50am

Turns out Robert Villanova was the guy who threw together a phony baloney “certification” program for Bridgeport’s disgraced and dismissed superintendent Paul Vallas.  (https://caselaw.findlaw.com/ct-superior-court/1640316.html)

Villanova’s advice is highly suspect. That rubric should be published immediately for public review.  After all, Dr. Birks frequently claims a commitment to transparency: “I’m almost TOO transparent!”

posted by: WakeUPNewHayHay on January 31, 2019  7:52am

NHI - Why are you not reporting on the shootings taking place in this region?

8 Shootings in one month? An alternative news source is doing a good job of informing the public.

Why are you lagging? Does it not fit your narrative?

I could care less about the BoE drama when the city I live in has FEARLESS shootouts happening in residential areas!

COME ON! The way the police are treated in this city, the way we coddle our red flaggers?

We need to be addressing these issues!

What’s going on? Pics, details?

Please report the WHOLE truth of this city instead of a BLINDLY SJW narrative.

posted by: 1644 on January 31, 2019  8:23am

Regarding the Center for School Change, “The Center’s core practice is partnering with districts and other organizations to strengthen their leadership, systems, and improvement strategies in service of improved and more equitable outcomes for students. ” https://ctschoolchange.org/about-us/
How does a secret, unwritten evaluation do the above?  The school reform movement wanted evaluations of both students and teachers to bring gaps and deficiencies into the open, where they could be addressed, and, hopefully, remedied.

posted by: tmctague on January 31, 2019  10:31am

“Board Told To Keep Birks Eval Secret”

I see what you did there! 

Peaks aren’t funny, they are hill areas.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on January 31, 2019  11:01am

Rubric’s posted: http://nhps.net/sites/default/files/Dr_Villanova_Presentation_28JAN2019.pdf

posted by: ctddw on January 31, 2019  2:08pm

The Mayor, her administration, and the BOE keep talking about transparency but clearly don’t want transparency. Even though teachers performance reviews are not public information there still is a detailed review that is recorded. Why should the Superintendent not have a written detailed review? At her level, because crap rolls downhill, it should be public. Because clearly she is responsible for what the teachers accomplish.

Unlike WakeUpNewHayHay, I see a clear relationship between the crime in New Haven, its administration, and education. There was a recent report that listed the median income of towns in Connecticut. Many of the towns had 6 figure median incomes and many in the higher fives. New Haven came in at the bottom of the list with a median income somewhere around 36-39K. (I think Bridgeport was slightly higher and Hartford slightly lower). There were only 3 or 4 towns that had lower median incomes than New Haven on the list.  Our administration is not doing anything to attract businesses. But even if we had the business our educational system is not making sure students succeed so they become valued employees.

We have become a society that coddles children and young people so they are not prepared for the real world. No employer is going to coddle an employee. They are going to assign a task and expect it to be done no questions asked. They are going to periodically review your performance and you will either continue in their employ or not. If our children are not performing in core competencies in school they are not going to survive in the real world. Having teachers change grades or removing teachers that are tough are not the answers. You are only doing a disservice to our children.

We can’t sustain a society living on freebies and we can’t keep depending on tax payers when the median income is only 36-39K. And add to the equation the people that don’t work at all and have 0 income. This is the perfect recipe for crime.

posted by: Kuan Yin on January 31, 2019  6:35pm

Here we go again. How can the employees of the NHPS day after day out go through this embarrassment? Friends of mine who work in New Haven say any where they go they are always asked “what the heck is going on in your district?” And why in heavens name can anyone explain why it would only be one board member wanting to hold the superintendent accountable for her job? It was mentioned that she has a clause in her contract that prohibits a public report of her performance. Why would it have been that important for her to have that preempted in the deal???? Maybe there was already a speculation that she would not make the grade? and shame on any BOE for letting that go through. one more question…..Who is evaluating the Deputy and Assistant Superintendents…..hhhmmmm? would love to see what those look like.

posted by: speakingthetruth33 on January 31, 2019  7:58pm

Birks has done a terrible job in NHPS.  She should be fired.  No personality, rules like a tyrant, and cares less about the teachers within the system. 

posted by: jharris on January 31, 2019  9:23pm

I agree with others that Villanova should be fired from the assignment given his advice to the BOE.  So much for developing school leadership by the Center for School Change!

In fairness to everyone, why not conduct Dr. Birks’ evaluation in a private professional manner where the discussion that needs to occur can happen, and there can be an honest discussion about her strengths and weaknesses.  Then provide a written summary that can be released to the public?  A public “performance evaluation” is not the only way for transparency—besides, it will become a spectacle as soon as it starts.  Having to release a written summary is not unreasonable to everyone involved, and the mere existence of a written document will force everyone to come up with something they can all live with. 

I’m baffled that the members of the BOE don’t seem to know how to help Dr. Birks be successful.  I don’t know if she’s a good Superintendent or not, but I do know that if I were on the Board that hired her, I would be trying to help her succeed, not fail.  And I don’t mean the Board Chair micro-managing her!  That’s crazy—he knows nothing about running a school or school system.

posted by: ECM on February 1, 2019  2:54pm

This is yet another sign of the rampant corruption of the Harp administration. Fire Villanova. Hold Birks accountable.

Our school system is a travesty. Our school is a noxious brew of violence, under-qualified teachers, vacant positions, under-staffing, non-existent guidance and support, and overt racism.

If Birk is proud of what she is doing, let it be public.

posted by: ctddw on February 1, 2019  4:15pm

in response to jharris….

With the salary that Dr. Birks makes I would expect her to be successful on her own merit. My boss pays me to do a job; I am part of a team but the expectation is that in 95% of my job is done with little to no hand holding and I just report my accomplishments to my boss.

When this newpaper reported that New Haven was looking for a Superintendent and listed the candidates there was a poll. The votes clearly showed that Birks was the least favorable choice.  For whatever reason she was chosen. I looked at the candidates and the resumes that were submitted (public record) and I could see clearly accomplishments from other candidates. To me Birks resume was just a series of sentences with no clear quantifiable goals. Right from the onset the administration seemed to throw her under the bus with the layoff notices which as a citizen made me question their choice. Did they realize they made a mistake but had to live with it. Who knows… but certainly an out in the open performance report could either show the choice was a good one or maybe she should be on the end of a forced resignation because she just didn’t live up to the hype.

posted by: jharris on February 2, 2019  9:32am

to ctddw:

With all due respect, comparing your job and its expectations to that of someone who runs an enterprise employing hundreds of people and spends hundreds of millions of dollars is comparing apples and watermelons.  Dr. Birks, or anyone of that ilk does not succeed in these jobs by themselves, they need the support of their Boards of Directors, they have to build an effective operating team (which is what they manage on a day to day basis), and they need the political support that recognizes a school superintendent also needs the community to succeed.  So yes, even corporate CEOs need to build support among their Boards.  Name one who has been successful with their Board actively looking to undermine them????  For example, Dr. Birks needs the support of the BOE in managing the politics (both BIG P and small P) of the job because those politics are ever-shifting and at times outright bizarre.  If she has to do her job, and keep looking over her back for those trying to undermine her, I doubt anyone in that position will be successful. I am not casting a verdict as to whether Dr. Birks is qualified or not, or is doing a good job or not, I’m simply saying that we now have with the Superintendent and the BOE is a self-fulling prophecy: she will fail because that is what the BOE wants to happen, so don’t be surprised when she fails!

posted by: ctddw on February 3, 2019  3:25am

to jharris

Since you don’t know me or what job(s) I have done you wouldn’t know if I am comparing apples to watermelons. First of all, you are correct that I might be comparing the small New Haven school system to a real corporate environment. I have worked in the corporate world most of my adult life. Either way the concept is the same. Within an organization there are levels and each level has a number of people below reporting up. The person at the top sets the goals and everyone below is expected to get it done.

In this case,  Birks should be accomplishing the goals of her boss by her leadership of the people that report to her. If she needs to keep going to her boss to guide her on these accomplishments then something is wrong. Her boss could just do the job and cut out the middle man. So maybe a school is different but in the real world if you keep needing constant support you will find yourself replaced. And by the way hundreds do not report to her because teachers are evaluated by other educational managers, who are evaluated by principals etc. so she does have support and she is not doing it alone.

As far as the politics in BOE and New Haven schools that is just a problem period not just for Birks. They all think they know everything. She certainly can handle her own when it comes to getting rid of teachers so you reap what you sew. Maybe that is why she is looking over her shoulder.

And by the way those millions you mention…..you mean the millions she does not have….but she continues to make promises to the parents that cry the loudest….or do you mean the millions she is spending by putting tons of teachers out on paid leave while they do their investigations because they don’t have just cause for unpaid leave. Let’s not forget then the expense of substitute teachers to replace those on paid leave.

Yeah I guess you are right. I have no clue on what really goes on. Must be those watermelons getting in my way.

posted by: jharris on February 3, 2019  9:48am

To ctddw:

read my remarks again—you attributed things to me that I didn’t say and are exaggerating what I mean by “support” from her board.  I work in the corporate world as well so I am very familiar of with how executives go about building support in their organizations.  However, I think the real problem is your shorts got twisted when I mentioned you might be comparing apples and watermelons.  lol!!

posted by: 1644 on February 3, 2019  11:20am

ctddw: I am puzzled by you statement, “If she needs to keep going to her boss to guide her on these accomplishments then something is wrong. ”  I have read nothing about Birks going to her boss.  I have read that Goldson, who is not her boss (but thinks he is) has required repeatedly asked Birks to talk to him, while Birks cried to Harp, who is also not her boss, but thinks she is, and also thinks she is Goldson’s boss, for intervention. 

Overall, Birks was a questionable choice, but the BoE doesn’t seem to know its job is to support, not undercut her, and I cannot see how it can evaluate her on her job since it cannot even do its own job.

posted by: ctddw on February 5, 2019  3:38pm

1644 it’s a moot point whether you want to argue over semantics of “boss”. Ultimately even though the superintendent is “CEO” she is evaluated by the board.

The most important responsibility of school boards is to work with their communities to improve student achievement in their local public schools. School boards derive their power and authority from the state.They set the visions and goals of the district, adopt policies that give the district direction to set priorities and achieve its goals, adopt and oversee the annual budget, and hire and evaluate the superintendent.

The superintendent implements the school board’s vision by making day-to-day decisions about educational programs, spending, staff, and facilities. The superintendent hires, supervises, and manages the central staff and principals.

Our school system does not succeed on so many levels. There are so many under-performing schools which ultimately fall on the leadership of the principals. Principals in failing school are rarely fired they are moved around. There is definitely a pillage being done currently in the schools that are having a chaotic affect and is sending the wrong message. Granted Birks inherited a mess but hasn’t done anything to make it better. And you can be assured she is already setting up her exit strategy and planning on a nice payout.