Last Monday, more than 50 people crowded into the Fort Bend ISD administration building, passionate to speak for or against a proposed mask mandate. Many of them bore signs and showed up hours before the 6 p.m. meeting, spending the time before the meeting going over talking points.
Most school districts’ boards of trustees, seeing that kind of interest in an agenda item, would vote to move it to the beginning of a meeting – allowing those with a vested interest in the matter to speak their mind and receive closure while also making it home to their families before midnight.
But not FBISD.
Instead, the people waited until after 9 p.m. to speak as the meeting moved forward at a crawl, with trustees querying administration on every bit of minutia they could think of. By the time the speakers’ time came around, some had already left.
Parents wrote on social media in the days before the meeting that they’d had a hard time getting answers from their trustees. District officials were slow, or silent, when asked about mask mandates by the Fort Bend Star in the days leading up to last week’s decision.
Trustees then waited until after 11 p.m. to vote on the matter at hand.
That incident might be bad enough by itself, but it’s made worse by the fact that it comes around the same time district leadership has made several other bizarre decisions.
For starters, not one day after the board in a 4-3 vote narrowly approved instituting a mask mandate across the district’s campuses, someone within FBISD authorized filing an amicus brief with the Texas Supreme Court, challenging Fort Bend County’s ability to call for a mandate.
Inquiries with the district about who made that decision – a matter typically reserved for a board vote, of which there was none – went unanswered.
Then, not 48 hours after the district officially instituted the mask mandate, district officials made them optional again, citing a Texas Supreme Court ruling. But no one with the district would answer specific questions about how the decision was made or even by whom.
This brings us to the matter of the ongoing search for the district’s next superintendent to replace Charles Dupre, who resigned somewhat suddenly, and who had been in charge of the district since 2013. The rumor mill has been consistently on fire about what led to Dupre’s decision in the months since, but to our knowledge, no trustee has ever directly acknowledged what led up to it.
Furthermore, the search itself has taken place mostly behind closed doors, out of the public’s view.
State law gives school districts the ability to keep the names of candidates for a superintendent opening secret until trustees name a finalist, but they are not required to do so. Actually, the written word of the statute says finalists, but most districts try to avoid releasing any information by waiting for a sole finalist.
School superintendents are one of the only public jobs in the state exempt from public disclosure rules. If a city is searching for a new city manager, for instance, they must disclose candidates. Same for a search for a new police chief.
Just because someone can do something does not mean it’s a good idea. Stories are legion across this state of a public left in the dark about a superintendent search until the end – only to discover the sole finalist has some sort of glaring issue that might have been uncovered earlier had the public been involved.
Keeping the public in the dark also increases the odds of giving a superintendent a hefty salary, complete with a big severance agreement, and any number of other issues.
There’s a common thread across each of these recent incidents. In each case, you have a district and elected leaders who do not feel accountable to the public who elected and entrusted them with the roles that they hold.
Dealing with an impassioned public about potentially controversial issues – whether it be a mask mandate, an amicus brief or a superintendent search – isn’t easy, but it’s part of the job for elected leaders and public school administrators.
If trustees and district administrators can’t be bothered to answer the most basic of questions, or put themselves out there for the public to talk to, what else are they getting wrong? It’s a question parents, students and, perhaps most especially voters, would do well to ask themselves the next time they’re about to walk into a polling place.