Erosion doesn’t happen overnight. Over time, though, the little things accumulate and wear us down. The first storm began for our district in 2021, could have been a blip. When three candidates for Forest Hills school board rejected the offer in 2023 to appear in front of voters at the nonpartisan Meet the Candidates event –– we were taken aback, and sat to consider the impact of erosion of trust & normal candidate & elected official's behaviors & the risk to FHSD.
In a local podcast recorded in May of 2021, Mr. Bibb offered hope to champions of transparency and sunshine laws when he commented to the host “that’s my whole goal, to let the light in.” “We’re a public institution,we need to work with the public, not just suppress information and only give it to them when somebody actually asks for it”.
So how much better has transparency been since this board was installed?
Every elected leader is trained on the guidelines and community expectations related to their roles. In addition, this group of four campaigned on transparency, demanded it prior to entering the roles, and aligning themselves with advisors that by their own claims are experts in the law. With all that in place — is there evidence that the board has demonstrated that they have not only awareness, but also understanding of the value of transparency to democracy and have taken that understanding to heart in their actions, behaviors and efforts?
Bob Bibb provides the most evidence that he understood the assignment — in a podcast from May 2021, Bibb outlines an experience where he accused the district leadership of deleting text messages despite requirements to retain the records.
To listen to Bibb’s comments, recorded on a local podcast in May of 2021, about the district’s obligations to retain text messages, click here for the short clip. Bibb mentions his own frustrations, his awareness of the district policy, and his own practice to retain texts for up to one year. The podcast host then says “when someone goes and deletes it on purpose, I kinda wonder why”. Bibb responds, "yeah, if you … that just further eroded the trust issue.”
Sara Jonas also has demonstrated she too,understands the rules. Choice changes to her words occur when she is in public meetings compared to when she’s under oath, and penalties for perjury exist. Jonas misled the public on the authorship of the Culture of Kindness Resolution and whether or not she had a hand in canceling Diversity Day in 2022. Under oath, she admitted she didn’t write the Resolution after all, and it was her text asking Scot Prebles (former Superintendent) if Diversity Day had been canceled. Emails about consolidation from Jonas to Prebles don’t align with her public statements, either. Publicly, she’s said they didn’t discuss consolidation, but her actions show that her public statements often obfuscate the truth which is only later found after intense digging by groups and individuals. See the full email here.
And, in an earlier blog post, we highlighted the evidence of Jonas' missing text messages.
Public Records requests also show board President Hausfeld was utilizing her gmail instead of district email at the beginning of her term. In the emails, Hausfeld was acting in a more public capacity by coordinating efforts with other elected officials on district business. Indeed, her use of Gmail for district business raises important legal questions. If Hausfeld routinely uses her personal account to send district communications, she may be limiting the accessibility of those emails to the public in the event of a Freedom of Information Act request. In the process, she may also be opening her own emails to more public examination.
Finally, we have to review Katie Stewart’s behaviors. Recently, we observed Stewart using Facebook to source community feedback. Non-email communication isn’t tracked and traced the same way email is, and she must agree to produce the record before it can be included in any PRR. The post appears to have since been deleted, potentially violating Ohio Revised Code Section 149.381,
If the board is aware of the guidelines, are they simply getting bad advice?
Legal firm Ennis Britton representative Bill Deters typically advises the board members related to their obligations. They focus on serving school districts, and make clear they're well versed on the subject on their website, here: https://ennisbritton.com/education-law-blog
What could these behaviors and continued erosion of transparency and trust ultimately mean to the community?
The behaviors we accept now will become the norms of the future. When we lose the ability to hold our elected leaders accountable to violations of policy, rule or law - we lose the underlying foundation of our own Constitution — a government by, for and of the people.
Members of the board have already demonstrated a willingness to erase evidence of secular and cultural tolerance espoused by the Constitution as they eliminated Diversity Day, erased the mural at Nagel, introduced the “Culture of Kindness Resolution” and attempted to remove bathroom access for transgender students.
All of these acts and preparation to take these actions occurred without public discussion prior to their introduction, all were denied by the board when the community sought answers and clarity.
Can this community ever regain trust?
We are not aware of any new policies proposed by Bibb or others to encourage or increase transparency, improve or broaden record retention to include text messages, calls, social media posts related to their roles in the district, or to welcome additional public oversight. However, it would be a way this board could begin to rebuild trust - introduce and pass a policy to ensure all board and district related communication is captured at the end of every month from all sources, and, available for Public Records Requests.
To date, no district PRR has ever turned up with a text, or social media post, or any other form of communication besides email from any of the board members — despite Bibb’s own frustration with prior administrations’ actions around this issue and Linda’s recent admission at the 9/16/2023 board meeting that text messages are used among the administration and board members.
Local residents deserve elected officials that understand the democratic norms, laws, and policies related to running a district and also celebrate them for the value the institutions provide to the community and reinforce those principles with actions.
When our candidates and elected officials avoid democracy and democratic norms that have historically shaped American ideals, they put more than the community at risk. It is up to us as members of the community to vote only for those candidates who will do more than demand transparency and adherence to practices and norms that espouse the values of democracy from others; FHSD residents should seek out and elect leaders who declare their commitment to democracy and also demonstrate behaviors that render their actions as unassailable evidence in their personal commitment to all laws and policies.
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