Last summer the Capital criticized AACPS for a lack of public involvement in the interim superintendent search (see Capital-Gazette Takes On AACPS ).  AACPS promised to address that issue in its search for the next fulltime superintendent.  It has now taken its first major step to fulfill that promise.

On November 22, 2013, the AACPS PR officeannounced that the Board of Education is sponsoring a series of four forums to be held from December 10 to 12 in various locations throughout the County to gather public input on what the public is looking for in the next AACPS superintendent.  It also announced that from November 22 to December 12 the public will be able to provide online inputon the superintendent search.  During that period, the online input is supposed to be publicly displayed.  Sounds immensely admirable.  Right?

The questionnaire I accessed on November 22, 2013 had five questions:

1)      Which group do you represent? (Please select only one)

Options include parents, students, AACPS employees, public officials, and community leaders.

2)      Please share 3 things you LIKE MOST about the Anne Arundel County Public Schools:

Three fields are provided, one for each like.

3)       Please share 3 things you believe NEED IMPROVEMENT in our school system:

Three fields are provided, one for each needs improvement.

4)       Please read each of the following 33 qualities and mark 10 characteristics you believe are most important to AACPS in the selection of a superintendent. You do not need to prioritize your selection; simply place a check mark next to the characteristics which you feel are most important.

The ten options must be filled out before you can move on.

5)       The board and their search firm welcome any additional comments you may have below:

For me, question #4 gave away the primary purpose of this questionnaire and related public participation activities: a publicity stunt.  Being forced to prioritize the 33 qualities felt like a waste of my time, as they were all non-controversial qualities that didn’t reflect the really difficult and important tradeoffs the superintendent is likely to face.  I doubt many people will take the many minutes needed to thoughtfully answer this question.

Several other aspects of the AACPS public participation plans signaled the same PR intent:

  • AACPS spent millions of dollars on its Audio/Visual facilities (which are almost as good as a commercial broadcast studio), and the Board of Education has said that the superintendent search is by far the most important decision it will make this year.  But the Board does not intend to broadcast these hearings, even the one in the Riva Road Board room.
  • The comments will be posted online for only a brief period and taken down long before the superintendent search is over, but true democratic deliberation would entail allowing the public to see the comments as well as the Board of Education.

What will be the biggest impact of the responses?  My guess is that they will be used by the AACPS PR office to help the Board of Education and superintendent candidates with their public messaging.  It will help them know which phrases resonate most favorably with the public.

On the other hand, the Board of Education will be very sensitive to the “public” feedback from important stakeholders.  But much of that feedback is very unlikely to be disclosed via this process.  For example, the various unions are sure to do the most rigorous background checks on the candidates.  They will call their colleagues in the various districts and find out who they should and shouldn’t trust.  For those they don’t want, they will dig up dirt that will disqualify them in the eyes of the Board (for those who know how to play this game, it is surprisingly easy to find negative information on just about anyone).

The problem isn’t that stakeholders aren’t entitled to pursue their interests in the most effective way possible.  The problem is that this “public” participation process will be hidden from the public, making a mockery of the Board of Education’s implied promise of openly selecting desirable superintendent qualities.

So how did I answer the questionnaire?  Here is my answer to question #5, which reflects my wonky focus on democratic process issues:

Commit to meaningful transparency to foster accountability to the public.  For example:

  • Take the responsibility for fulfilling Public Information Act requests away from the AACPS PR office.  The purpose of the Public Information Act is to enhance democratic accountability.  The current AACPS setup converts the Public Information Act into a tool for public intimidation.
  • Consistent with widely adopted practices among school boards with revenue a hundredth the magnitude of AACPS, make BoardDoc documents searchable on the AACPS website rather than hidden as scanned pdf files (BoardDocs is the technology the Board of Education uses for disclosing its activities).  BoardDocs was supposed to enhance meaningful public access to Board decision making, not continue the old game of creating practical obscurity for public decision making.
  • Stop changing public documents without public acknowledgment (e.g., a date stamp on the revision) after they have been posted.
  • Make webcasts downloadable (rather than only available online) and commit to making them available online for at least ten years.  In our YouTube age, the cost to do so is trivial.

Another important democratic accountability reform would be to get a commitment from the future superintendent not to discreetly interfere with Board of Education elections/appointments—or allow his/her subordinates to do so.  This is not a question of effectively playing the game of plausible deniability.  (We can presume that any superintendent the Board hires will be smart enough to do that.)  It is a matter of creating effective policies to eliminate the current temptations to engage in such behavior.  Since Maryland lacks any type of special prosecutor or meaningfully independent body to enforce the norm against inappropriate use of AACPS public office for political purposes, the incentives to follow this norm must be internally generated within AACPS.  My commentary below, Anne Arundel’s Next Superintendent Should Restore Integrity to SMOB Elections , highlights one of the areas where incentives for improper staff involvement in politics is practically irresistible and should be eliminated.

Source: Snider, J.H., Superintendent Search Update: AACPS Answers Capital’s Criticism, Eye On Annapolis, November 24, 2013