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What should they know, and when should they know it?



Pasco School Board member Steve Luikart had a concern.

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino had asked the board to suspend a teacher, Maryann Verdi, without pay. She didn't explain why.

Verdi appeared before the board requesting that, if she must be suspended, she keep her salary during the investigation. She didn't explain the situation, either.

So as it deliberated Tuesday, the board had only a name on a list, provided by the superintendent that same evening.

"We're going to be making a decision that is going to be impacting the life of people without knowing ... the information," Luikart complained. He asked why someone on the superintendent's staff couldn't have, at the very least, given board members a heads up with some details before the meeting began.

His question sparked a lengthy conversation that had little to do with Verdi, but everything to do with the way the district does business.

Fiorentino explained that the letter she wrote to Verdi, which includes the details of her recommendation, was not yet public record because 10 days had not yet passed since its delivery. In addition, she continued, Verdi might appeal the recommendation, which would result in a hearing before the board.

"I have been told ... I am not allowed to make you prejudiced before the case," Fiorentino explained, turning to board attorney Dennis Alfonso for support.

Alfonso agreed that board past practice has been to wait until matters come to a head, so that they don't get information that might not be considered evidence in a hearing. "Bottom line, if there is an appeal the board will have a full blown hearing," he said. At that time, the details will emerge. If the board rejects the firing, Verdi would get her pay back.

Luikart pressed the matter, saying he was still bothered. The board was being asked about the suspension without pay that night, he noted. How could it act without details?

Alfonso  said it would be within the board's purview to have information presented to deliberate the suspension, noting this question rarely comes up because most employees do not contest the action. Board member Cynthia Armstrong worried, though, that the board had not set a policy for considering these matters case by case. The board should be uniform in its action, she suggested.

Alfonso warned against setting a policy on the fly, and said case by case might be best. Still, he also cautioned against Fiorentino calling each board member or providing details outside the "charging document" — Fiorentino's letter — which again was still not public record unless released by Verdi who, by the way, tried to offer to release the information but was not allowed to speak.

In the end, the board suspended Verdi without pay, without having the information.

Long explanation. But it seemed necessary in order to get back to the basic question: What should the board members know, and when should they know it? If an employee makes a public request at a public meeting for the board to consider her fate, should the board have more than a name on a sheet of paper it just received?

Let's hear your views.

[Last modified: Thursday, September 15, 2011 8:17am]


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