Transparency must always be top priority for all government entities, especially during a pandemic when it’s harder for citizens to share their views at virtual meetings.
So, we have to question the timing and method of the Cuyahoga Falls Board of Education’s decision to renew Superintendent Dr. Todd Nichols’ contract for four years at an online meeting April 15, seeing as the contract did not expire until July 31, 2021.
The matter was not clearly included on the agenda for the public in advance. An executive session listed "Employment" and "Administrative Contract" — two valid reasons for executive sessions under Ohio’s Sunshine Laws. These topics can be discussed in executive, or closed, sessions but any action has to be taken in a public meeting.
You had to click on Administrative Contract and scroll down to see it was for the superintendent. However, adjournment was listed on the agenda after the executive sessions — there was nothing clearly listed for any additional voting action to take place.
Adding to the problem was the failure of the meeting’s live feed. The vote to renew was not a part of what was publicly shared, making it illegal under the temporary rules governing open meetings. Anyone watching may have assumed the public portion of the meeting ended with the executive session based on the agenda and the live feed being turned off. An audio recording of the April 15 meeting was not posted for the public until a week later.
The community can debate the pros and cons of the renewal and should contact board members with their thoughts. But regardless of which side you are on regarding his renewal, all should be bothered by the way it transpired.
When the board gave the superintendent a three-year renewal on what became his present contract, it was done in September 2017. State law requires boards to give notice of the intent to non-renew by March 1 prior to the contract’s expiration. So why was this decision something that needed done right now?
When asked why the contract was approved more than a year before the current one expires, a board member responded, "It’s pretty standard to do this in advance. If you want to keep someone you usually want to let them know so they don’t look for other opportunities."
Another member said since the district was waiting to hear from the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission regarding the state funded portion of the district’s planned construction project, "We knew there would be a flurry of activity as soon as we received word of approval and wanted to address the superintendent's contract so we could focus our attention on new facility planning," adding it’s a "common" practice when a board wants to continue employing the current superintendent.
That may be so, but to not involve the stakeholders — the community — in the decision is unacceptable. And if the board members knew they wanted to retain him in the position, what difference would a few months make, hopefully when we would be out of this pandemic? The decision leaves the public with a four-year decision without any input and a bad taste in their mouth.
Times are challenging with the pandemic and government entities are trying to conduct business in a fashion that satisfies the need to maintain operations as well as stay transparent with the public.
But the Cuyahoga Falls School Board failed miserably with the latter.
Yes, on the advice of legal counsel, the matter is being brought back before the board for the vote to be affirmed May 6, also at a virtual meeting. We urge the board to allow public participation before any vote. But that may be too late to offset the public’s negative perception of the board’s action.